Soils, Compost and Climate Change #2: From COP21 To Now



In part two of our climate talks episode, we’re delving deeper into the main discussion points, the challenges, and the dangers we’re facing right now in making agriculture and soil a key player in climate change strategies. By the end, we should have a decent overview of the situation and will be all set for COP22. We’ll also be sharing insights from the International Compost Roundtable – a side event that took place during COP21, with speakers Enzo Favoino of Zero Waste Europe, climate change advisor Calla Rose Ostrander, and Teresa Anderson of Action Aid.

We discuss: the latest developments from the SBSTA, the issues with linking soil carbon sequestration with cutting emissions, the dangers of greenwashing, and how to support compost markets in a fair, sustainable way.



BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Wherever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution. For more, visit their website.



An analysis of submissions to SBSTA 44 on agriculture and adaptation. CIFOR May 2016.

Lima Paris Action Agenda Official Website.

10 options for agriculture at Marrakech climate talks. CCAFS September 2016.

Soil Carbon Can’t Fix Climate Change By Itself—But It Needs to Be Part of the Solution. Article. Union of Concerned Scientists USA. 2016.




Picture Attribution:

Forages in Tanzania: making trade-offs. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Forages in Tanzania: making trade-offs. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Forages in Rwanda. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Forages in Rwanda. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Debre Berhan, central Ethiopia. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Hosana, Ethiopia. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Réunion inter-ministérielle COP22. By Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et de la Coopération. Some Rights Reserved.

Présentation de la feuille de route du Maroc pour la COP22. By Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et de la Coopération. Some Rights Reserved.



Transcript Coming Soon.


Soils, Compost and Climate Change #1: From COP21 To Now



In this two-part episode we discuss what role compost, soil, and agriculture played during the COP21 climate talks last year, and review what has been happening since, with COP22 just around the corner. We’ll also be sharing insights from the International Compost Roundtable – a side event that took place during COP21, with speakers Enzo Favoino of Zero Waste Europe, climate change advisor Calla Rose Ostrander, and Teresa Anderson of Action Aid.

We cover the dangers of language and how it can lead to greenwashing and bad policy, challenges in measuring results with soil carbon sequestration, how the attention on soil & agriculture translated into action, how our policy frameworks need to change, and much more.



BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Wherever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution. For more, visit their website.



Ecomondo 2015, November 8th to 11th. Rimini Italy.

The largest technology platform for the Green and Circular Economy in the Euro-Mediterranean area – and for advanced and sustainable technology for processing and recycling all kinds of waste; treating and reclaiming water, waste water and polluted marine sites; efficient use and transformation of raw and processed materials and the promotion of renewable raw materials.



Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) 2016. November 7th to 25th. Online.

An online, open access event that invites thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, businesses, makers and learners to explore the question “The economy is changing – what do I need to know, experience and do?”. Using a mix of online and face to face events, participants have the opportunity to explore the economy through a different lens. Sessions demonstrate how people worldwide are challenging the current ‘take, make and dispose’ economic model.





INDC Assessment: The Land Sector and Country Commitments to Global Climate Action. Rainforest Alliance. 2015.

How countries plan to address agricultural adaptation and mitigation.  CCAFS, CGIAR, 2015.

The Marin Carbon Project.

4 pour 1000 initiative.


Picture Attribution:

Forages in Tanzania: making trade-offs. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Conferencia de la ONU sobre Cambio Climático COP21. Some Rights Reserved.

Conferencia de la ONU sobre Cambio Climático COP21Some Rights Reserved.

COP21 Protests-1420337 by Mark Dixon. Some Rights Reserved.

Civil Society helps COP21 Choose the right road to 1.5C degrees by Takver. Some Rights Reserved.

2DU Kenya 87. By CIAT. Some Rights Reserved.

Food security, Indonesia (10695853234).jpg. Josh Estey/AusAID. Some Rights Reserved.

Jonathan Cobb’s farm with cover crops. By U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some Rights Reserved.

Time To Act Climate Change London Protesters Creative Commons. By David B Young. Some Rights Reserved.

Cobs of corn. By Asbestos.

Transcript Coming soon.


[Retrospective] Vineyards Special #1: The Wonders of Cover Crops



While we will continue to make new episodes, there are times when we feel the urge to highlight a past episode – because the topic it covers becomes news and the show shares some great insights, or because it is content that our newer listeners might have missed out on. Since last year was the International Year of Soils, we will be republishing a few of our best episodes about soil and soil health to get a fresh perspective in light of all the progress that has been made on the issue.

To round-off the series, we’re ending with a in-depth look at a popular and very effective sustainable agricultural technique: cover cropping. In episode 16 of our show, we had with us Bob Cannard and Bob Shaffer – both experienced sustainable farmers and horticulturalists. They shared their techniques with us, explained just how cover cropping works and how beneficial it can be, and gave us their expert advice. We learned a lot about cover crops in making this episode, and if you’re wondering after the last two episodes, just what exactly the sustainable agricultural techniques might look like that we need to start pushing for – this is the episode for you.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Photo by Robert Reed, courtesy of Recology.

Cover crops are becoming more and more popular, but they still aren’t completely understood by everyone. Bob Canard, can you tell me what exactly cover crops are, and how do they work?

Bob Cannard: Cover crops are nature’s way of preserving, enhancing and balancing the soil. All they are, are crops that grow naturally, or are planted, that are allowed to grow and establish and protect the soil, cycle nutrients and actually build soil, absorb atmospheric carbon, deposit it in the soil as food for the soil biology, which is the important digestive force of all life.

Bob Shaffer: Yes, cover crops are simply plants. Now, we’re going to chose the genus and species of plant that we call a cover crop, or, as Bob said very brilliantly, we can also just accept the resident vegetation – that which is growing in a field or pasture. But let’s recall that plants are the organism on earth that harvest carbon out of the air and puts that carbon into a form that we call organic matter. So plants are literally producing organic matter on earth that we then can introduce into the soil as a carbon source, which is food for microorganisms and other animals, and then also the plant above ground is protecting the soil surface.

Where are cover crops most popular?

BS: Cover crops are being used every place around the world right now, more and more every time. I’ve watched Napa and Soma Valleys (California), as I’m sure Bob has also, become quite well cover cropped compared to ten or fifteen years ago; they’re more and more used all the time every place.

Bob Cannard, as a long-time cover crop user, can you tell us the key benefits of using cover crops, as opposed to mulches and other methods?

BC: They stimulate the soil biology: all plants produce lots of sugars and other complex organic molecules that they pump into the soil and establish a relationship with the soil, so they actually nurture the soil. At the same time, their root system breaks up (subsurface soil compaction), and cycles nutrients from deeper profiles to the surface, making the soil more aerobic and balanced towards aerobic life – which it’s all about.

By comparison to mulching, they grow many cubic yards (depending on the intensity and the size of the cropping system) of compost for the soil. And mulching – you’re getting that organic material from another piece of ground, and it sacrificed its organic material to turn it into mulch or compost, which is spread on the ground, and it takes a lot of BTUs of petroleum energy in order to do all of that and spread it. Whereas the cover crop is very low energy input: the seeds are planted and they grow, and they harvest that atmospheric carbon, and deposit directly into the soil without those heavy inputs.

That’s a very interesting benefit.

BS: It’s very expensive to grow mulch on one piece of land, take the carbon from that land and move it over to another. We’d like to grow and use the cover crop as our source of mulch.

Bob Cannard, you manage hundreds of acres of vineyards that use cover crops successfully. Can you tell me a little about your strategy and what cover crops you use?

BC: We have a thousand acres in cover crops. Every winter time is the rainy season, and we plant in the fall after harvest, or just before harvest. We used mixed seeds and I’m a great proponent of a mixture of cover crop plants.

First off you need very low energy, quick germinating nurse plants that hold and protect the soil for the higher-level life support plants that come along slower and later. The cover crop protects the soil from all kinds of erosion, and the little quick growers do that quickly. They don’t provide too much organic matter, but they really help the next stage, and the next stage is perhaps the low proteinaceous broad-leaves, and then you’ll phase in to the higher proteinaceous grasses – more and more biomass. And finally, the high level of life, long term blooming plants, like the clovers and the vetches and the peas and the beans – the leguminous plants that take much longer to mature. Each one helps the next one, and the diversity is a very important element.

We like to grow our cover crops and let them stand to as full maturity as possible. In the organic kingdom, there’s lots of conversation about green manure cover crops; well, they break down very quickly and release lots of nitrogen. What I’m looking for is lots of carbon, and stimulating the free-living nitrogen-fixing biology of the soil, and this vastly reduces the need for nitrogenous influences, applications, fertilisers on the vineyards – and in the vegetable gardens as well.

Can you get a little more detailed about the process and tell us when you plant the seeds, how you cultivate it – if you do at all – when you mow it, and how you manage it all?

BC: Well, it depends entirely on the site. Some sites, hillside sites, are never cultivated and the cover crop leans progressively more towards perennial plants. Other sites are cultivated, but we do our best to cultivate as late as possible, allowing the cover crop plant to come to its maturity. When you try to incorporate a green plant, like a green manure, it has only lived a portion of its life and it has a high nitrogenous body; whereas if you allow to as great a degree of maturity as possible, it dries out, it makes its own seeds (some varieties reseed themselves and don’t need to be included in successive plantings), and it’s straw is carbonaceous and has a longer than one year half-life in a temperate climate. So you actually build soil carbon, the foundation of the soil digestion, which is an absolutely critical motion. Everything has to have good digestion, and that digestive force solubilises the minerals. Additionally, on the soil surface, that straw spawns and sponsors the various yeasts, so we are less dependant upon yeasting the pressed grape juice to make wine, and we can use the indigenous yeast of the particular site in many cases which means we get the true terroir, or taste of that soil and that location.

To be clear about the general process of cover cropping: you plant the seeds, either in spring for summer cover crops, or in the autumn for winter cover crops. You can use it as a green manure by mowing it and incorporating it into the soil when usually when it’s flowering and still green, or you can wait until it’s a little woody and chop or mow it down to use as mulch. Is that correct?

BC: Yes, it’s mowed down or grazed down, and maybe cultivated, or maybe just mowed and grazed – it depends upon the plot and the variety, and air drainage, and many, many variables. We’re always trialling little plots of little pounds of sprinkling here and there, and it takes a while to grow the soil; if you have a herbicided, clean cultivated, long-standing degraded soil, high level of life plants like clovers may not take hold, because it doesn’t have properly developed soil biology yet. But through the use of incorporating the maturity of the cover crops over seasons, the soil population will change and you’ll get the nice, soft, beautiful, proteinaceous, easy to work with kinds of plants, and they will take over from the thistly, thorny, creepy-crawly, difficult types of plants to manage.

So viticulturalists should be prepared to invest a bit of time at the beginning if the soil isn’t healthy already. And is there anything specific to vineyards that viticulturalists need to understand about cover cropping – is it much different to cover cropping for farms?

BC: Not particularly, but the height of the type of plant and whether it’s an annual cropping cycle or a perennial, and its degree of maturity so that it can become reseeded, so you don’t have to reseed it annually – at least not with all of the species…

We use early season grazing of sheep and goats at high density, quick rotation so that they aren’t over-grazed but just appropriately grazed. The sheep actually stimulate the regrowth of the cropping system, so it responds as the season advances into the summer time with a good early maturity. Then, in many cases where it’s just mowed, what you end up with is all of this reflective strawy grass on the soil surface – not just grass but all the plants that turns golden as it dries out – and it reflects heat back up to the fruits underneath the canopy and actually increases the warmth and the dryness of the canopy. This reduces the incidents of mildew, and stimulating this broad array of canopy biology that additionally enhances the resistance of the plant through species competition of one dominant mildew type problem.

That’s a unique benefit of cover cropping, or mulching. And Bob Shaffer, do you want to add anything? 

BS: We have to recall that viticulture is a monoculture, often times at least, and I see the cover crop as a way to bring diversity, and to break the problems that are associated with monocultures. Also, I can rotate the genus and species that I use; I can rotate them over space, I can rotate them over time, so it actually adds, not only diversity to the monoculture, but adds the component of rotation. For example, I can put perennials on one side of the vines or tractor rows; I can manage that as a perennial cover for a few years, and then I can have annuals on the other side. I can also use those annuals and/or the perennials – or specific strips planted through the vineyard – as a beneficial habitat and food sources for beneficial insects, beneficial life forms in the vineyard. So, in all ways, the cover crop – if selected and managed well – can be the source of diversity, can be the source of rotation, and the source of beneficial life forms brought to the vineyard.

There are many variables when it comes to cover cropping, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, but is there something you would recommend to everyone starting off with cover cropping?  

BS: It’s something that teaches you. I’d encourage people to immediately start cover cropping, and all farmers must always have trials going on. These do not have to be large, expensive, exhausting procedures, but having some type of trial always going on in the farm shows you where to head next. It also is your little classroom where you can go out and look and learn. So having at least some strips of cover crops – of different species always – to learn what to plant next is a good idea.

There are a lot of species to choose from as well. Bob Shaffer, what are your thoughts on choosing the best species for vineyards?

BS: On choosing species, one of the things you want to do, as Bob Cannard pointed out, you want to use a polyculture. I’m always going to use a mix of grasses, legumes and forbes when I’m planting. Also, as we broadcast it or drill this type of mix, the site itself will sort out which plants are most appropriate there.

In frost-prone vineyards, cover crops may the increase in risk of frost damage. What is your advice regarding this?

BS: Certainly if I’m going to put a cover crop into a frost prone vineyard, then I’m going to add the important component to the cover crop that we haven’t directly mentioned yet, which is as important as species selection, or any other feature of the cover crop: the management of the cover crop. So, if I have frost concerns, I’m going to select cover crops that are low growing, and then I can manage the cover crop in the frost season by further mowing it – at least on one side of the rows to allow some air drainage. Also, if you’re using broad-leafed species, they tend to have less of the ice nucleating bacteria on their leaf surface, and are less prone to causing frost problems in the vineyard or orchard.

I want to address another common worry that people have regarding cover crops, which is water usage. Wouldn’t cover cropping add extra irrigation costs for drier climates?

BC: We grow over-winter cover crops and we utilise rainfall as a natural irrigation, and it actually increases rainfall infiltration by reducing soil compaction. So actually, we reduce irrigation requirements; and then, it’s depositing on the soil surface at maturity, high levels of carbon, and one unit of carbon will support and hold approximately eight units of water. So, we increase our water holding and infiltration characteristics by increasing the organic matter content and the root zone development through cover cropping.

Yes, I read in a couple of articles, including a 1994 research article in the California Agriculture journal, that winter crops generally have very little impact on soil moisture compared to summer cover crops – so that would be a good option for vineyards. And Bob Shaffer, do you have anything to say about water usage or to add to Bob Cannard’s point?

BS: The cover crop, particularly because of its roots being in the ground, increases the humus levels. As those roots decompose, it increases the humus level, and this is the material that Bob Cannard was referring to as holding more water in the soil.

Though I will say that, sometimes if I have an existing vineyard, maybe it’s old and maybe the soil is weak and worn out, the transition period of introducing cover crops into that vineyard – there has to be some care taken to make sure that we don’t take water away from vines. Obviously, a cover crop plant uses some water when it grows, but it’s more an issue of timing: both timing in terms of transitioning into a cover crop (where the vine gets used to having other roots around it) and also as we build humus in the soil, there’s a little transition time that’s needed for that. And then, if we use a little water in the spring time for the cover crop, that doesn’t take away critically from the other crop – whether it be vines or some other plant; but later in the year, as the cover crop has been managed into a mulch, we’re actually using less water because we’re protecting the soil surface, we’ve built humus in the soil… And so, the timing issue on water needs to always be addressed rather than saying “okay, does the cover crop use water or not”.

So the takeaway from this is that timing is everything and it may increase water usage at the beginning, but in the long run it will actually save water. And now onto the management question: I presume it takes a little more time and effort to manage cover crops – wouldn’t this increase management costs?

BS: Considering whether cover crops raise our management costs, we have to look at the whole farm, and look at the multiple benefits that the cover crop has brought to the farm to address whether we lost or benefitted in terms of management dollars.

Can you both give me some examples?

BC: Well, my field, these vineyards that I assist in managing were conventionally grown and heavily cultivated, and herbicided underneath the vine rows. And we had, when I first took over twelve years ago, a preponderance of tenacious, noxious weeds that interfered with the canopy of the grape vine, and through management of the cover crops – planting selected varieties and improving the soil, and utilising inter-crop grazing of the sheep and the goats – after twelve years now we have very few noxious weeds and it’s actually reduced our over all costs; weeds that would shoot up from the herbicided strip into the canopy that had to be mowed or supressed in one fashion or another.

BS: Another aspect of management that cover crops can safe you money instead of cost you money would be for dust control, for example. A lot of times a vineyard or farm will get very dusty during the dry season, whereas if we have cover crops and we’ve managed over to stubble and/or mulch on the surface, it reduces dust. That dust can increase mite pressure in the vineyard, so if we have mulch and we’re absent of the dust, then it decreases our cost of spraying for mites, or managing for mites. There a number of other features that we could name that the cover crops actually decreases management costs.

One of the benefits I came across was the introduction of beneficial predator insects that keeps pests down. Has that been your experience?

BC: We’ve had very few problems with pests.

BS: Certainly, if you provide habitat and food for everyone, then the system tends to become more balanced. Where there are appropriate numbers of predators, there are appropriate numbers of prey. As the goal in “managing the farm” or “managing pests” is not to eliminate all the pests; it’s simply to increase the antagonism from the pest’s predators. And we do this by carbon, we do this by having flowering plants; nectar, pollen, habitat, and carbon above ground.

If anything, I’ll say the cover crop, with all the glory that we’ve talked about and the beauty of the cover crop, still: the cover crop shouldn’t be viewed as all we need; we always have to look after the whole system and say “okay, look: I’m going to manage organic matter, which includes cover crops, compost and mulches. I’m going to manage minerals. And I’m going to manage my tillage”. Those three areas: OM management, mineral management, and tillage management all need to be considered, all need to be cared for to have the cover crop show its best; to have the compost to show it’s best, and to have the minerals show its best. They’re linked in biology, they’re linked in being foods, and they’re all necessary to manage at the same time to get the best benefits.

So a holistic approach is really what you’re going for. And are there any other benefits to using cover crops that would outweigh other management costs?

BC: The cover crop and the soil surface organic material holds and supports the soil, where many clean, cultivated and just bare soil surfaces can be very tacky. Let’s say during harvest we have modest rainfall, then it impedes the ability for the harvest crews and the equipment to move through the vineyard because of the muddiness, whereas with the increase of soil surface organic material (and especially the dry carbonaceous material), the soil surface is held and supported by the residual root systems. And the soil surface itself is protected by the strawy organic material, and this really reduces the stickiness in many different ways: just physically at a large-scale straw level, and at a digested carbon level/humus level it allows the soil particulate matter to be happy with itself and want to stick to other elements, such as harvesters feet

That’s an interesting benefit that I wouldn’t have thought of, actually.

BS: That’s actually a huge benefit, even during the year sometimes with the irrigation systems, if you have cover crops it enables workers to have less mud on them, and to have some place to sit down; to have some place that’s green and flowering instead of just a bare herbicided soil. There’s a huge difference in the vineyard for both the people and the crop when we use cover crops.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this episode already, although we could probably go on forever. But for the final question: are there any issues you want to address with cover crops, or anything else that viticulturalists need to keep in mind when cover cropping?

BC: Well, it’s a possibility that you might have overgrowth. A lot of viticulturalists, back to frost issues, are worried about canopy heights of cover crops. Well, there’s legitimacy to this, because it reduces air drainage, but at the same time, a high-density cover crop of good, bread-leafed plants has a better canopy biology to it that resists frosting. And those plants are also respiring energy and actually warm the vineyard’s atmosphere on cold nights.

No, there are definitely problems, and it’s a progressive activity. A novice viticulturalist beginning to grow cover crops might be afraid to let them come to maturity, and boy, that’s all right – it’s a beginning. And as we develop and grow, we develop more confidence as we grow, and we also develop our soils and select a broader diversity of cropping specimens, a variety, and allow them to come to greater maturity.

BS: That’s certainly experience speaking, and I’ll say to summarise that excellent comment by Bob Cannard: I would encourage people to view cover cropping as a transition, as part of a transition into more healthy soils, and to better above-ground relationships, rather than an instant change.

Well put. So, cover cropping is definitely beneficial, it just takes a little bit of time and a little bit of effort to get it all going. But once you have the experience, it’s probably the best way to go. Unfortunately that’s all we have time for I’m afraid, thank you Bob Cannard and Bob Shaffer for coming on the show.

BC: Well, thank you for your interest.


[Retrospective] Drought Special #3: Fighting A Drought: Levers for the Public Sector



While we will continue to make new episodes, there are times when we feel the urge to highlight a past episode – because the topic it covers becomes news and the show shares some great insights, or because it is content that our newer listeners might have missed out on. Since last year was the International Year of Soils, we will be republishing a few of our best episodes about soil and soil health to get a fresh perspective in light of all the progress that has been made on the issue.

Today’s retro episode is all about policy, and the Australian experience.

Our guests are former Governor General of Australia and Advocate for Soil Health, Major General Michael Jeffery, and co-founder of Ylad Living Soils Rhonda Daly. In this episode we discover the crucial elements needed to build a comprehensive policy framework that will protect not only our soils but our landscapes. We look at the current Australian system, soil health, incentives for compost production, farm management practices, and the need to change our systems in order to better reward and support our land managers – the stewards of the earth. We then link this back to the current recommendations made in the FAO’s report Status of the World’s Soil Resources.

Links to other episodes in the Series:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3


Episode 2: Drought Special #3: Fighting A Drought: Levers for the Public Sector.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources 2015, Technical Summary. FAO Report.


International Compost Awareness Week Australia. May 2nd – 8th. New South Wales, Australia. Organised by the Centre for Organic Research & Education (CORE).

International Composting Awareness Week Australia (ICAW), is a week of activities, events and publicity to improve awareness of the importance of compost, a valuable organic resource and to promote compost use, knowledge and products. We can compost to help scrap carbon pollution by avoiding landfilling organic materials and helping to build healthier soils.

Photo by suburbanbloke / CC BY


When it comes to drought, it seems that up until now, the drought relief packages were based on Exceptional Circumstances programs and included mostly financial support for farmers already in dire circumstances, with very little attention given to actual prevention of drought or preparing for drought before hand. However, there are some changes occurring now with the National Drought Program Reform that is starting in July, which recognises that drought no longer fits in the exceptional circumstances category, and will focus more on drought preparedness through providing training programs for land managers on risk assessment and financial planning and so on. But General Jeffery and Rhonda Daly, you both agree that a lot more has to be done. So General Jeffery, maybe you can tell us what you think is necessary for the public sector to do in order to actually prepare for drought and minimise the effects of drought on the Australian landscape?

General Jeffery: Well I think the first thing to do is recognise that at the present time, Australia doesn’t have a real national policy in terms of how it wants to look after the Australian landscape as a totality; that is, its river systems, its flood plains, its wetlands, its riparian zones; agriculture areas, grazing areas, mining areas and so on. And I think until we get a policy that spells out the need to have, perhaps as a light on the hill, to restore and maintain an Australian landscape that is fit for purpose – that is fit for all the things I just mentioned – we’re all going to be stuck doing itty, bitty things (and some of them quite important and quite good), but until we get an over-arching aim of what we want to do, with total state and local people all singing from the same sheet of music, I think we will be struggling, particularly when it comes to drought.

It’s getting that policy agreed to restore and maintain an Australian landscape fit for purpose; it has been knocked around a bit. And you can’t blame people, that’s the way people were taught and trained at the time, but –

Rhonda Daly: Don’t you think also that because they’re using water as a commodity – as an economic commodity – and so we’ve got this false economy coming in where we think we’re a rich country, but we’re actually deteriorating the landscape really badly. Short-term it appears that we’re not doing so much damage because economically we’re doing so well, but ultimately, the wheels are going to fall off that analogy for sure.

So Rhonda you’re saying that people involved have a very myopic view of the situation and focus only on the short term economic results, rather than the bigger picture, which I think is definitely the case in many other countries as well. And General Jeffery, you’re saying that we need to get all levels of public sector – local, national and state, to come together and agree on a national policy for restoring and maintaining the landscape. How would you propose we start?

GJ: Well part of the issue has got to be that, if we want to restore and maintain this landscape so that it is fit for various purposes, you’ve got to ask yourself, “What are the three key ingredients that will enable us to do that?” And it’s really about the integrated management of your soil, your water (that is, the hydrology), and the biodiversity – the plants and so on that you’re growing, whether crops or grasses, or what have you. So, good farming practice and land management practice, mining practice and everything else, depends on the stakeholders having a very clear understanding of the need for that integration, and understanding the art and science of doing it properly. And that’s where good farming practices and land management practices come into play.

My next question here was to ask you if you think soil is the most important factor for healing the landscape and therefore protecting against drought, but what you’re saying is that all three aspects, soil, water and vegetation, are all important?

GJ: Yes, I think we’ve got to talk about landscape rather than soil. Although I’m the National Soil Advocate, I think that’s a misnomer to a degree because it gets everybody focused on just looking at soil, when we should be looking at water and biodiversity. And Rhonda raised a very good point specifically on the water, where I think our focus in this country for many years has been in the wrong direction. We’ve always looked at how much water we’ve got in our rivers and streams and dams, and we then issued licenses, and so on, to users of that water. But the total amount of water falling on our landscape every year, if you take it as a hundred drops: only ten drops end up in the rivers, two drops end up in the dams, and another two drops end up as run-off off the roads and roofs – that’s only fourteen percent.

But that’s what we all look at – we focus on that because that’s what we can see. Where we’re missing is the other eighty-six percent that falls on the landscape, of which only about thirty-six actually gets into the soil where you want it, and the other fifty percent evaporates into the atmosphere because it can’t infiltrate.

And holding water in soils is a very important of drought management as well, which we’ve mentioned quite a few times in previous episodes. Rhonda, would you agree with that?

RD: I would agree. I would agree that there’s a huge amount of land that, as you say, needs hydrating – the wetlands and… But you know, truly and really I think that it’s quite sad that I don’t know whether they see that as the most important thing that they have to do at the moment. I think so much energy is going in other places. I truly don’t believe they know the workings of our environment and landscape, and what is the best way of getting it back – and spending the dollars to get it back into a healthy condition again.

GJ: I think that you really need political decisions at the senior level of federal and state to ensure a proper implementation of an appropriate process. So, I think it gets back again to this lack of an over-arching policy where we need to look after the landscape, and then the various ingredients that’ll make it work, and we discussed two or three of them earlier on.

Indeed. And what you’re saying is that it really is important for senior levels in government to take an active role in this, because there are big decisions to be made, and they need to steer the ship. But in terms of getting the research right, there are already wheels in motion, because just recently the Australian Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry recently launched the National Soil Research, Development and Extension Strategy, which aims to secure Australia’s soil for profitable industries and healthy landscapes, and among its many goals, it aims to “improve communication and sharing of soil knowledge”, and “to adopt a national approach to building future skills and capacities”. SO this is definitely a step in the right direction and perhaps it will achieve some of what you are calling for?

GJ: Yes, I think that is a good step in the right direction, and as the National Soil Advocate, we were able to bring together an expert advisory panel of four of the nation’s top land management scientists, backed by another twenty or so scientists who support them, and we were able to input into that strategy, which was really about doing four things: quantifying our soil asset in respect to data and mapping, and what are our soil types, and how healthy is it. And then, how do we go about securing our soil by identifying and evaluating best practice by looking at soil structure improvement, soil biology, carbon and so on. And the third bit was to look at understanding our soils, which is the technical level: the training of our ag scientists, soil carbon sampling, understanding the hydrology of our soils, understanding the soil biology and so on. Then there was soil at the interface, which was really looking at the search on environmental impacts: understanding water capture and storage in soil. So I think that the RD&E (the Research Development and Extension policy) that was launched by the minister a couple of weeks ago is very much a step in the right direction and I’m pleased that we were able to have at least a little bit of an input into it.

That’s a pretty comprehensive strategy focusing on soils, and I daresay one of the first of its kind. And it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the future. But in the past, has soil and soil health has featured in Australian drought policy in any big way before now, or has it been side-lined?

RD: From y perspective I would think that in all of the drought policies that they’re putting into place, soil health is definitely featured, and not only soil health but the management practices as well. So, yes they are incorporating and recognising that soil health is a major player in ensuring that we hold more water in our landscape for plants in these drier times. So, I think they’re recognising that, but there just seems such a huge part, and chunk, that still needs converting. Because, I would say that there’s really only maybe two or three percent of Australian farmers who are actually really practicing regeneration of the landscape, and the rest is going as business as usual. And how do we get the business as usual people to understand the importance of their soil, not just for today’s farming and their productivity and profitability, but for future generations to come?

So, I think Australia’s got a really short term view of their soil health, and we tend to – and that’s because of economic restraints – but we tend to look at just the now. “What do we do now to make us a profit this year that will keep us on the farm next year?” And I think economics, with one in seven farmers owing more than half a million dollars, plays a huge role in farmers up taking these different methods of rebuilding our landscapes back to being healthy again. It’s very much on just paying the bills.

GJ: One of our policy drives in restoring and maintaining this landscape fit for purpose is to reward farmers fairly not just for their product, which is another subject in itself, but also as primary carers of the agricultural landscape, because they look after about sixty percent of the continent. And I believe that we need to reward farmers for looking after the landscape on behalf of twenty-two million urban Australians. Now as to what sort of thing you might do to do that, it can be varied: it might be designating part of the new land army that the Government is going to establish to plant trees on the ridges where a farmer wants it, or to get a cheaper bank loan if he’s going to fix his riparian zone, or a whole range of measures that are not hand-outs, but are provided with a definite outcome in view, which relates to restoring and maintaining that landscape so that it’s in the best possible condition. And I think if we’re clever we’ll be able to do that, and in part overcome the problem that Rhonda’s just raised, that so many of our farmers are in very, very heavy debt.

Right, which definitely won’t help. And on that note, would you say, General Jeffery, that if the new carbon sequestration methodology gets approved, that this would encourage farmers to change their practices? And for our audience, this new methodology is part of the Carbon Farming Initiative, which is a Federal Government initiative to enable people in the land sector to generate revenue through the reduction of carbon emissions by using approved methodologies. So, would this be a potential help for them?

GJ: Yes, I think that if we’ve got a climate change problem – and I believe we have – that’s going to exacerbate our ability to produce more food, and the only way we can help to adjust to that is by sequestering carbon into the soils. The big issue for Australia is going to be in the complexity of the legislation – all the criteria upon which farmers can gain access to that money. And I think we really have to have measuring systems for carbon that are set to business standards, not to scientific standards, so your means of measuring don’t have to be quite so accurate when you’re talking about commercial operations, and therefore can be a bit simpler in terms of a farmer then being able to access what could be a very important source of revenue; and also a very, very important source of helping to adjust to climate change, and perhaps to control it to a degree.

And touching on what you said before, about support payments not being hand-outs: I wonder about citizens in general, particularly urban dwellers, are they sympathetic towards farmers and their situation, or is there work to be done there to get them on board?

GJ: Yes, well another of our policy drivers, and I think it may almost be the most important, is to reconnect urban Australia with its rural roots. That is, reconnect twenty-two and a half million people living in cities and towns with a hundred and thirty thousand farmers and perhaps a hundred thousand miners, or something like that. Now, unless we do that we’re going to find an even greater gap and lack of understanding between the two. And of course, you’ll never get the political support that’s needed to look after our farmers and landscapes properly unless you’ve got voter support. So we have to have that reconnection.

And to do that I think there are several ways. The first is that we’ve got to get to the young people, and I would do this by setting up, for example, a school garden in every school in the country. Something that can  show a six year old, and then a ten year old, and then a thirteen year old, just exactly what the soil does, and how it’s composed, and how photosynthesis and transpiration works; and how you produce healthy food from healthy soil that leads to healthier animals and healthier people. So I think that is one simple way in which we can get urban Australia over time connected; and hopefully the kids will take these messages home to mum and dad, and that would help us get through to the adults at the same time.

But getting the adults on side, I think we’re going to have to use a little bit of stick and a little bit of carrot. The stick is going to be the global food imperative, because in my view we’re going to be pushing it, and I think we’re going to see a lot of social disruption and probably conflict impacting on hundreds of millions of people – and Australia will not be isolated from that. So what we have to say to our own people is that there are going to be big, big problems overseas, and whilst we have some problems in how we’re looking after our landscape here, we’ve also got the answers. And if we’re clever enough and fast enough, we’ll get those answers implemented pretty quickly. And not only will it ensure our own food-water security, but we’ll also be able to export some more food – but even more importantly, export knowledge, because even if we double food export, we’d only feed a hundred million, but if we exported knowledge we might be able to feed a billion.

I’d really like to stress the school garden idea myself as one of the best ways to get the urban population interested in nature. There are also things like community gardens and urban farms that can really help forge a connection. School compost schemes and education can play a huge part too, and I’d like to speak more about compost now, because we’ve heard a lot in previous episodes about the benefits of compost for soil health and drought protection. And Rhonda, you have a wealth of experience in the industry, and as a compost producer yourself, can you tell me what type of incentives exist for you that encourage compost production and use?

RD: That’s a really good question, and I’ve had to search my mind. On a smaller level, the council is starting to introduce green bins to collect compostable waste, and there’s recycling bins and things like that. But from a primary producer’s perspective, I don’t really know of too many incentives or initiatives where people will come – unless there’s a trial being done by Landcare or CSIRO, where they want to get the compost – for them to get into using compost or other biological fertilisers that are a little bit softer on the land and create healthier plants at the same time.

AORA is an industry body – the Australian Organics Recycling Association, which used to be the old Compost Australia – they are promoting it as much as they can, but I do feel as though there’s got to be more policy in there that is going to give farmers the incentive – and possibly there’s going to be a dollar incentive. However, I do believe that there’s going to be people who want to do it because they know intuitively that that’s what they need to do while they’re here on earth. However, the ones who still haven’t reached that calling yet, that maybe the Soil Carbon Methodology, or policies, will see them change over to something new.

So there may need to be financial incentives for some farmers to get them to start composting. And often compost producers will tell us about roadblocks or regulations that actually hinder their ability to run their businesses. Can you tell me about the situation regarding this where you are?

RD: Yeah, sure. It appears that our government supports recycling organic waste – so, reducing landfill, rebuilding soils and… However, the cost of complying with many of these regulations make it not worthwhile for a lot of companies to pursue. And I actually phoned Paul Coffey from AORA  today and asked him what’s going on, because he’s right on the ground level: and the EPA are at present trying to impose a new regulation that is going to put a huge financial burden on compost operations, where they have to have a bank guarantee, and it has to be supplied to the EPA saying that if the operation for some reason goes insolvent, then the money [is used] to cover the clean up of the site. Inevitably this is one situation where this happened. It’s going to cost some operations as much as one-point-five million dollars to have a bank guarantee sitting there, and, as Paul was saying, it will close down many, many operations. And the thing that they’re forgetting to see is that levies are paid to the EPA that could be used for these clean-ups.

So, this is just one of those regulations made in their ivory tower, they’re not really in touch with what’s out there, and it could cost the industry very, very dearly because less people will be wanting to go into composting and recycling these seventeen million tonnes of organic waste that we have.

I guess it just comes back again to having a clear and coordinated strategy so these things won’t happen.

RD: Yes. Well, it’s fortunate that we do have AORA there, and Paul spends a lot of time doing policies, and going to the EPA and working it out for members such as myself. So, definitely, these bodies are very, very important for the ordinary person like myself, because they’re there to ensure we don’t get so many restrictions and conditions on us that it makes it basically impossible do composting.

It’s definitely is an issue I’ve heard before, which once again seems to show that more coordination across different interests could really help. And what I’d like to focus on now is farmers and land management strategies. Because one of the key ways to make change happen is to demonstrate how it can be done, and General Jeffery, you’re Chairman of the non-profit organisation Soils For Life, which is doing great work to support farmers in changing to better practices and advocate for a change in how land is managed generally. And you have been researching case studies of farms that are using sustainable practices in order to spread the word, and the case studies are available online. But through your work with Soils for Life, could you see ways in which incentives and policies could encourage farm managers to change their practices and adopt more drought-resisting practices?

GJ: Well, thanks for those comments on Soils For Life, and of course, Bill and Rhonda are a very important component of the nineteen case studies. We just did nineteen initially because that’s what we were able to raise the money for, and we wanted to actually prove the concept, and well I think we’ve done that, and now we want to roll-out another forty or fifty – and then hopefully hundreds and then some in clusters. I suspect the encouragement to do that will be in showing those who are looking to make a change that, first of all, it’s economically viable. They’re not going to commit unless they can see a dollar in it. And to get that dollar I think we certainly have to do things in terms of how we’re looking at food in terms of pricing, and how we’re looking at rewarding farmers in how they’re rewarding the land.

But, maybe we’ve also got to look at a new definition of productivity, because so often, I’ll think you’ll find the bank saying to a farmer, “Well, to meet your debt obligation, you’re going to have to lift your productivity [muffled] by five percent next year, or whatever. And therefore the farmer then either has to put in a bit more superphosphate, or clear a bit more land, or put a bit more land under crop when he probably hasn’t even got it. And so, false pressure is put on him to lift his productivity, and the same might be true of pressures that may be imposed or implied by the two big chain stores that buy sixty or seventy percent of the produce.

So perhaps we’ve got to look at productivity again nationally in a different way. And if a farmer operating to ninety percent of what he saw as the traditional productivity, which was also degrading his landscape, but ninety percent productivity by his old measure keeps him in permanently good health and good shape, it is far better to look at a system that relates that sort of equation than a farmer whose been striving to do one hundred and two or one hundred and three percent – which he might do for twelve months or two years, and then his soils collapse on him and he goes broke, and the bank has to foreclose, and doesn’t get anything out of it either. Perhaps you see where I’m coming from – that we have to look at productivity in a slightly different way?

Yes, I think I get you, that the notion of productivity should also look at if the land is better managed and can sustain at the same level of productivity for a long period of time, rather than purely looking at the percentage of crop yield. But then, how would you envision we tackle situation with productivity, or protect our farmers from bank pressures and supermarket pressures and the likes?

GJ: Well again, I think it gets back to the policy, and about the rewards.  You see, unless we have these policy parameters in place, we’re going to have the same arguments – they’ll just continue. And the same problems will continue. So you’ve really got to get the aim right for what you want to do: you’ve got to get the soil -water strategic assets declared as such and managed as such; you’ve got to get farmers properly rewarded (and we’ve been through that); you’ve got to get urban Australia really understanding the importance of soil, water and biodiversity, and therefore the importance of farmers, so that if, for example, we might have to pay another half a cent for a kilo of carrots, or another two cents for a litre of milk to ensure that a farmer is properly rewarded for his product, then we pay it gladly. And if there are people that are disadvantaged, then there’s a welfare net to deal with that. But we cannot have farmers being knocked over with unfair prices simply because companies are competing to reduce, reduce, reduce; which is fair enough in principle, but why should the poor old farmer have to deal with that?

And then, we’ve got to refocus the science, so that the science properly supports the farmer in terms of measuring soil fertility, carbon sequestration…if we get all these things in place, then I think we will solve the problem very quickly. But until we do, along with our soils program, which is the practical and proven application on the ground, we won’t maximise the benefit.

I think that sums it up very nicely. And then, final question to both of you: how long do you think it will take for this coordinated approach and solid policy to come about and transform the landscape? Is there much more to be done?

GJ: I think in terms of what I’m trying to do and what Rhonda’s trying to do, I think we’re looking at about a ten to fifteen year programme. There is no magic light switch – you can’t just transform the whole of the agricultural society overnight, because you’re dealing with a hundred and thirty thousand very independent people with their own ideas, et cetera. But the big thing is that we do have the answers, and I think the global imperative…in terms of the opportunities that it provides for our farmers for, perhaps the first time in many, many years, to become sustainably profitable and environmentally sound is going to be there for us to take advantage of – if we can get the proper policy, and fixing the paddock policies in place.

RD: I totally agree with what Michael just said. And in particular, influential people like General Jeffery, who has so many doors he can open – we need people like that to open many more doors, and in time there will be more doors that will open, and people will be coming to us, and far more farmers will be wanting to change.


The Anaerobic Digestion Update: Using Operational Efficiency & Better Policy to Solve Current Challenges



In this episode, we bring you a detailed update on the current status and challenges facing the Anaerobic Digestion sector today. With industry experts Jing Liu and Mario Rosato, we discuss the need for a better understanding of the AD process to improve operational efficiency, policy changes that support renewable energy and environmental safety, and for closed-loop systems that favour local abundant feedstocks over the use of energy crops.

And in part two of our episode, we bring you a briefing from Ecomondo 2015, sharing insights from the key figures we spoke to at the event last month. You can find video briefings and material from this event on our Events Page.


Lund University is recognised globally as one of the top research-led comprehensive universities. The university and its Faculty of Engineering is consistently ranked as one of the top 100 universities in the world. Responsible for research and postgraduate education in different engineering subjects, architecture and industrial design, Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering is today world-leading in a number of fundamental and applied fields, such as nanotechnology, combustion physics, automation, chemical & environmental engineering and biotechnology. For more, the Lund University website, and the Department of Biotechnology page.


Bioprocess Control Sweden AB is a technology provider in the area of advanced instrumentation and control technologies for research and commercial applications in the biogas industry – exporting to more than 45 countries around the world. With a portfolio of smart instruments in the area of substrate analysis and process simulation, Bioprocess Control offers technology solutions that both stabilise and unleash the true potential of a biogas plant. For more, visit their website.




Main picture by Peter O’ConnorSome rights reserved.



State of Biogas Today – Operational Efficiency and the Volume-Driven Approach


THE ORGANIC STREAM: So today we’re going to be talking about the state of the anaerobic digestion sector today, and what we need to do in order for the sector to expand and improve, and you both have many great things to say on this matter. But when we were discussing the content of the show together, the key point you both brought up was that the A.D. industry is not focusing enough on optimising operational efficiency in biogas plants. So for our audience, we should start with a simple introductory question. So Jing, can you tell us what operational efficiency is, and what does it look like for A.D. or biogas plants?


JING LIU: Well first of all we need to understand the difference between the efficiency and the performance of the operation. Also, I think the efficiency and performance should match the goal of the process – the goal of the operation needs to be clarified. In fact, the goal of the operation might vary. For instance, in the traditional operation for waste and wastewater handling, the goal is to match the discharge standard. However, for renewable energy production, the goal is to maximise the energy production and to insure the profitability by improving the utilisation of the process unit, and increasing the mass and the energy throughput. And there might be conflicts between those two operational goals. So finding a balance is the key. We need to know that it’s seldom the case that plants are designed for optimum performance.


TOS: Right, so they’re not always designed with this in mind. And Mario, can you share your thoughts on this as well?


MARIO ROSATO: Yes, I have more field experience in this sense, and I can say that an anaerobic digestion plant can be considered optimal if it has been designed to be optimal by producing the maximum amount of methane per cubic meter of digester, and producing the maximum amount of methane per tonne of feedstock fed to the digester. These are usually opposite criterions, because one excludes the other. And at the same time, the plant must be stable enough in its operation – and I mean stable in the sense of maintaining a constant gas production with varying quality and quantity of feedstock, which is quite a tough goal to reach. So this is why a plant, to be optimal, must reach a compromise between these opposite constraints in the management.


TOS: Okay so it’s all about compromising, which can be quite tricky. So Mario, if there isn’t a focus on operational efficiency, what is the focus? Can you maybe give us a brief overview of the AD sector today in terms of the trends?


MR: Yes. In the European Union and the United States, the trend is to build plants as big as possible. The reason for that is a kind of economic scale. Usually the plant builders say that plants must be very big in order to be stable in operation, which is not completely true. A plant is not more stable or efficient because of its size; the plant is efficient because of its management. The other extreme is India or China, where the policies have lead people to build very small plants, usually at household level. In this case, the plants are poorly managed but nevertheless they are efficient for the scope they have, which is just to produce a bit of energy for household use.

It must be noted that regardless of the different national policies towards big or small-scale plants, there is very little political drive to make the plants efficient. It’s a pity, because a plant, which is not efficient in its operation, regardless of the size, produces a digestate, which is usually used as fertiliser, but if the plant is not efficient enough that digestate is not completely digested. This means it still has a residual methane potential and this residual methane potential means that greenhouse gasses will be emitted to the atmosphere. So the main environmental benefit of anaerobic digestion is being lost because of inefficient management. And on the other side, if you see the management of the plant from the economical point of view, an inefficient process is not extracting all the methane possible from that feedstock, so the result is that the economic performance of an inefficient biogas plant is also poor.


TOS: Okay so inefficient management is impacting the profitability of biogas plants – whether they are big or small, as well as the environment and there is very little political drive to change this at the moment. Jing would you agree here?


JL: Yes I fully agree, but maybe I should add some additional comments. In my point of view, a big plant does not necessarily have high efficiency, although big biogas plants should have a much higher interest in achieving high efficiency because the economic and performance impact is so big. But unfortunately this is not always the case. The businesses are focused on the plant construction and really little has been done to ensure a better understanding of the process, the process dynamic – basically, how to improve the operation.

So as a consequence, in many cases we treat the biogas digestor or plant as a “black box” machine. People receive unknown substrates and just dump them in, without knowing what they’re putting into the plant – and how can you expect to get an efficient and stable performance without knowing what you’re dealing with? In fact, the A.D. plant should be considered as, for example, a bacterial farm, or living organism – just like an animal farm that requires care and follow up. So we need to really care for the healthy level and growth of the bacteria, make sure they’re in the best condition to be able to convert biomass to bioenergy. So this is the situation. Even though the European biogas industry is considered more advanced in general, I think this also applies to European counties as well. So the situation really applies to the whole biogas sector, which urgently needs to improve.


Energy Crops & Other Current Challenges For Anaerobic Digestion Industry


TOS: So right now we’re operating without much knowledge of the process itself – and there are a lot of areas that the sector needs to improve on. Mario, you’re quite aware of the issue on the ground, can you share an example of the environmental and economic consequences of our current situation?


MR: Yes, I know the Italian biogas market well, and in the Italian reality, the industry does not earn money on making efficient plants or on the engineering of the plants, what actually gives money to the plant builders is the size. That is – the amount of concrete casted, or the amount of steel employed for building the plant. So this means that such gigantism can only be reached for plants which are in the range of a hundred kilowatts to one thousand kilowatts. And these plants are mainly designed for running on corn silage. Corn silage is not necessarily the most sustainable feedstock for making biogas, but it is very stable in its production, and so since said plants are owned by banks and capital groups, this substrate somehow ensures the owner of the plant that he will be able to recover the investment in a certain amount of time and have a certain profitability.

But if we analyse some statistics that have been conducted by an agricultural association in Italy, in this moment ninety percent of the energy produced in such biogas plants comes from the corn silage, and not from the manure. And on the other side, only a small amount of the manure (let’s say about ten percent) is actually being digested. The ninety percent remaining manure is just being thrown to the field without being digested, so the ecological potential of anaerobic digestion is being lost, which is actually polluting the manure before sending it to the field as a fertiliser.


TOS: Right, so instead of using the available manure, they’re growing energy crops, which goes against the notion of sustainable distributed energy and closed loop systems.


MR: Sure. Another aspect is that growing corn requires a lot of fossil fuel input for pumping water, etc. So producing electricity with biogas means that about sixty percent of the total potential energy of the biogas itself is being lost as heat. This energy lost as heat must be added to the energy put to the cultivation of the corn. That means that altogether, the amount of Co2 emissions to the atmosphere is higher compared to other renewable energies.

Finally, these plants that are owned by banks and capital groups were built with the purpose of benefitting state subsidies. So it’s actually the Italian citizen who is paying for the subsidies for renewable energies, and this means an increase in the cost of the electric bill; and a kind of unfair social treatment of the resources, because that excess money being paid by the citizen is going to banks and capital groups which sometimes are foreign and they then take the money out of the country. So the volume driven approach has brought, at least in Italy, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in biodiversity, and to the rise of citizen committees who are protesting against biogas plants – even those plants that are run correctly.


Designing the Anaerobic Digestion Plants of the Future


TOS: So this approach is really doing damage to the whole industry, the environment and the local citizens in Italy. So clearly something has to change, and we’ll be focusing on this change now. Jing – can you tell me your thoughts on what we should be doing – where should our focus be, what are the challenges we face, and how should we approach planning and designing A.D. plants in the future?


JL: Well this is rather a big question! Although I mentioned that the A.D. industry has focused on plant construction and not on improving the operation, I want to emphasis that this doesn’t mean construction isn’t important. It is super important to make sure that design, construction and operation are tightly connected to each other. I consider the following challenges or aspects that are important to address:

The right technical knowledge and facility that’s well able to increase the efficiency of the plant and consequently lead to a more profitable operation. The right feedstock is super important. Feedstock is the fuel for the A.D. plant. Without knowing the feedstock or how to properly select and manage feedstock, it’s hardly possible to enough good quality fuel to power the A.D. plant. I mean, this is the number one priority in many cases.

The second aspect is having the right plant design and construction. In reality, this is not always the case. Imagine that the steering wheel is locked when you drive a car – how can you turn your car? If there’s an object in front of you, you will hit the object. That’s sometimes the situation in the A.D. plant. So the future biogas plant and design should meet the new operational demand.

The third challenge, or aspect, that I’d like to bring up is that we really need to have the right instrument, process optimations, and supervision control. Nowadays, many A.D. plants lack basic instrumentation needed to understand the status of the operation. In the control world we say, “If you don’t understand the process, you are never able to control the process”. With too little process information it’s impossible to steer the process towards optimum conditions. So there is an urgent need and we need to get more information and analyse more.

The last aspect that I’m thinking about is having sufficient process knowledge and competence of the operator. Again, even if you get all the infrastructure – the right fuel, the right plant, the right instrument – somebody still has to manage, or drive, it. And this requires knowledge and competence of the operator. Only in this case can the industry move forward.

Quite often I use two examples. In one I refer to the A.D. plant as a bacterial farm, and in the other I refer to it as a car. A car is like the biogas plant itself, and you need a good car. The fuel is like the feedstock, and you really need the right feedstock to feed into the plant. And the driver…even if you have the best car and the best fuel, the car doesn’t move without a skilled driver. It’s the same for the biogas plant. You need to have experienced, knowledgeable operator and process engineer to steer the operations.


TOS: So with the right technology, knowledge and training, AD plants can greatly improve their operation. I’d like to discuss an example of how exactly this can work on the ground, and the benefits it can have. Now, Mario, you were involved in rescuing an AD plant in Italy – where the owner had invested millions in trying to figure out what was going wrong with their plant. The plant was rated as 1 mega watt, but only reached 60% in its of its capacity even though they were feeding it with more than 50 tons/day of corn and triticale silage. So Mario you were brought in to help figure out what the problem was, and – tell us what you did to find the answer?


MR: So most of the time, the plant is being fed with fifty tonnes per day of corn silage, which is a lot of money if you consider the fact that corn silage is a valuable feedstock. And the problem was easily solved with just eighteen thousand euros. This amount was used to install a small laboratory in the facility. I trained the workers of the plant – who are not engineers or biologists, they are just manual workers. And this plant, I must say, was under-dimensioned, so I focused the strategy on producing the maximum amount of methane given the size of the plant. So I trained the workers to check the potential of the corn silage with the laboratory. We did some experiments with different mixtures of silage, cow dung, chicken dung, and some minerals that tend to activate the biological activity of the bacteria.

So after a couple of months of tests with the instruments, we identified where the problem was. It was a lack in minerals, which was caused by using corn and triticale as feedstock. By adding these minerals – which are just mineral fertilisers that can be bought in any agricultural shop – the owner of the plant was able to bring the electrical production from a hundred and ten kilowatts to nine hundred and ninety-nine kilowatts, which is the legal limit allowed for that category of plant in Italy. So since then it’s been more than one year and the plant has been running stably. And I noticed a secondary situation as well, that the people working in that plant were highly motivated. You can imagine that going around with a dumper or bulldozer, loading silage from the trench and loading that in the digester is not a very interesting or amusing job – it’s quite a dead-end job. These people are now motivated because they’re not manual workers anymore, they are laboratorists. They are in charge of a very sophisticated instrument. Now any time they do something, they know why they are doing it, which is quite important because they are ready to assume risk and responsibility. So that is a side-effect that was quite positive for the operation of the plant and demonstrates that professionalisation of the operators is of utmost important to bring the plant to an optimum working condition.


Policies & Government Action Needed to Support Biogas & Renewable Energy


TOS: So it’s really a shift in perspective – that the AD plant is a biological organism, or farm, and the workers are laboratorists/biologists rather than just operators. So that’s a great example of how this can work…

So we’ve covered a lot of the challenges and what needs to be addressed for the sector to be successful. But let’s talk about the bigger picture. For example – when we talk about increasing efficiency, it’s hard to justify increasing the quality and quantity of the output if there is no support or market for them. So Jing, I’ll put this to you: what key steps do we need to take for the sector to move forward in terms of policy and political support?


JL: If you look at nowadays, biogas has been generating quote an interest in the last decade, in particular we see the transition from using A.D. technology for only waste handling towards combined waste handling and renewable energy production. Even though right now the price of the energy is low, in the long we all know that the basing our economy on fossil fuels is not sustainable – not only because of the cost, which will increase as there’s less and less fossil fuel and will create the greenhouse gas effect – but it will also have a negative impact on national security. Fossil fuels are not always equally distributed, so there are national security issues as well. So that’s also the reason why we’re coming out with renewable energy, and so on. But just in recent years the renewable energy is not as developed as it should be because of the return of investment – maybe it takes too long, and so on.

In my point of view, moving from fossil fuel to renewable is a decision of the politicians, because we are in the transition based on the energy sources of one of very few big players towards renewable – which should be operated and managed by many ´, many local players. Locally produced, locally utilised, and spreading out the risk and so on. And this is actually a political decision – it’s not only marketing, it is a decision. And that’s one aspect.

In my point of view, the market competition is also a bit unfair. Indeed, renewable energy is still in the relatively early stage and the market maturity and business model maturity is not as well established as it should be, compared to fossil fuel. And people say that there is too much support or too many subsidies for renewable energy, but in fact actually, the fossil fuel, I think, is getting much more support from the government or from the big players.

So my message is: we know the current energy system is not sustainable. We need to move from the fossil fuel economy to renewable – there’s no doubt about that. It’s for our future generations. And that’s actually a decision for the government, and government need to provide infrastructure and policy support to facilitate, grow and mature the business and help renewable companies move in that direction. It is also important to make sure there will be many, many local players involved in renewable energy production – it’s not one or a few big players. And that’s very important because that’s a great way to create jobs, which is another big benefit. So I think, once again, that this is a political decision and without the right political support, this industry will find it hard to move forward.


TOS: Great answer, Jing, really interesting points. Mario, what are your thoughts on this?


MR: In my personal opinion, the policies should incentivise the use of anaerobic digestion mainly for waste management. In that case the subsidies should go to those who demonstrate the lower greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest value of anaerobic digestion is the ecological value, apart of producing energy. It’s a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, and to produce a fertiliser that means saving fossil fuel energy for the production of chemical fertilisers. So these repercussions have an enormous value from the political point of view. Compared to other energies, anaerobic digestion is probably the best technology that allows a complete circular economy.

On the other side, the education is also very important. In order to drive a truck, you need to have a special license and undergo a lot of exams, which is absolutely logical because if you don’t know how to drive a truck, you can cause a lot of accidents. How can you explain, then, that nobody has ever thought about imposing the need of having a license for managing a biogas plant? An average Italian biogas plant has the power of ten trucks, and the damage it can cause to the environment if not correctly managed is enormous – it’s really a big environmental threat. So education of the operators of the plants is of utmost importance in my opinion. And this is an aspect that the policy makers have not considered until now.

The other aspect is that a biogas plant, if correctly and rationally managed and run with adequate instruments that can measure the methane potential of the feedstock, can be run on any feedstock – that means many residual feedstocks. And this is the most sustainable way to obtain energy, rather than cultivating energy crops. So this is another aspect that in many countries in the European Union is missing. Many policies are still pushing the cultivation of energy crops instead of the production of energy with waste through anaerobic digestion.


JL: I was thinking about adding one thing. I fully agree that the education and knowledge transfer is critical on the professional level, but I think also it’s very important to increase the public awareness – not just for the people but also politicians. There has been an increasing scare, you can say, about A.D. People say, “Oh, A.D. and biogas process is too complex”. It is a complex process, but it can be well managed. It is a naturally, existing biochemical process, and what we need is just to intensify it and make it more efficient. And with the right education and increased public awareness, I think we can utilise this gift from nature and get the most out of it.


Seldom can you find technology that can handle all kinds of biodegradable waste and stabilise it (which we need to do anyhow because waste is always there), and at the same time generate renewable energy. There’s no other technology that I can think of that’s comparable. So what we need is education and knowledge transfer to make sure that we see the benefit, we know how to operate it, and we create a good policy to support the development. Then, with this all in place, the right technology and good technology will naturally move to the sectors and be utilised, and consequently we will have much more profitable, economic, feasible and efficient process – and we can gain the benefits from the A.D. process.


Interview End.


TOS: That was Jing Liu and Mario Rosato sharing their insights and experiences on the state of the AD sector today – and giving us some very interesting points to think about.


From the discussion, we learned that first of all, we are not prioritising efficiency in plant operation today and this is having a negative impact both for the plant and for the environment. We need to build plants with efficiency in mind, invest in the right technology and in education and knowledge transfer systems so that plants can be run stably and efficiently, and feedstock can be managed properly. Education and understanding seemed to be key for both our guests. As Jing described – if the A.D. plant is a car, without a skilled driver in the front seat, the car will go nowhere.

In terms of impacts on the environment – policy played a huge role in our discussion today as well. We heard from both Jing and Mario that policy which favours large-scale plants and the use of energy crops – as opposed to using locally abundant feedstocks and closed-loop systems – has lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction of biodiversity and even a bad public image in the case of Italy, for example. A political decision needs to be made to support renewable energy and more small and local players, in order to build a truly sustainable AD sector, and plants should be rewarded for low greenhouse gas emissions.

So, we have a lot of work to do, it seems, to get where we want to be. Let’s make it happen!


Briefing from Event: Ecomondo November 2015, Rimini Italy


TOS: The Organic Stream team were at Ecomondo last month to take part and report on the event. For those who don’t know, Ecomondo is the largest showcase in the Euro-Mediterranean area for advanced and sustainable technology for processing and recycling all kinds of waste. The event takes place in Rimni, Italy and was four days of conferences with over a thousand international speakers, and an expo with 1,200 companies taking part.

This year the focus was on the green economy and how Italy is currently focusing on boosting the green economy in the country. The key message seemed to be that building a green and circular economy is possible today, and that they will play a central role in all industry sectors. Of course, there are challenges to face, however the companies and enterprises attending the expo were eager to find and demonstrate solutions – showing that there is an appetite for change.

This year saw the introduction of new areas to focus in the circular economy context areas – particularly food, biorefineries, and integrated water cycle management.


The generation of waste in the food system was a popular topic – as was the conference “Towards a zero-waste food chain: enabling technologies for the sustainability of the food industry and waste management in a perspective of circular economy”. Many different topics were discussed: the importance of separate collection schemes for organic materials, charges for pay as you throw systems, improving process efficiency in the food-chain, and strategies to reduce raw material losses. During this conference, we caught up with a few key figures to discuss the main points of interest at the event, and get more of a sense of the Italian situation.

We caught Marco Ricci – Chairman of the Working Group on Biological Treatment of Waste at the International Solid Waste Association, and former guest of our talk show – and he filled us in on the importance of biowaste recycling for Italy, and the challenges they’re currently facing.


MARCO RICCI: Italy source separates roughly fourty-two percent of all municipal solid waste, and biowaste is the key element to reach this result. One of the challenges is to expand the separate collection scheme of biowaste to the southern region where there is a lack of composting and anaerobic digesition infrastructure and where the separate collection schemes are realised spot-wise and not on a general area. The other point is that we had a recent report by the Italian environmental agency, which shows that intensive recycling schemes for municipal solid waste, including biowaste and especially food waste, are highly cost competitive to traditional solutions, which just rely on low recycling rates and high rates of landfilling and disposal.


TOS: Exciting news from the report that helps to support separate collection, which many municipalities in Italy have been having great success with as well.

Now, how to manage and the resources in rural areas was another key theme, and something that we sometimes tend to neglect when we discuss sustainability. Here is Fabio Fava, coordinator of the scientific committee for Ecomondo, sharing his thoughts on the matter:


FABIO FAVA: There are for sure new areas on which, in my view, we should work more in the future. Over sixty percent of the lands that we have in Europe are rural areas in which the environment is different from more populated ones. Often we are not exploiting the potential of this area in an efficient manner. So we need strategies and research and innovation tailored for promoting small industrial activities in this area – industrial means agricultural companies also – that are exploiting in the proper way the biodiversity that are specific for those areas.


TOS: There was much to cover over the course of the event, but particularly interesting was our chat with Andrea Miorandi – Ex-Mayor of Rovereto City, who implemented a separate collection scheme there. Mr. Miorandi was keen to stress the importance of citizen engagement in implementing organics recycling schemes, and shared some inspiring words that really summed-up the feeling at Ecomondo – that we’re ready to change.


ANDREA MIORANDI: The biggest challenge is to make citizens be participants in a good project. Citizen awareness and participation are the biggest challenges for these projects. Citizens must become protagonists even before the local administration or local authority. And we started a communication program that is both precise and locally-based. Well-informed citizens are enabled to participate in separate collection recycling. Citizens also need to be rewarded and local authorities need to thank citizens once expected results are reached.

Citizens must understand that their power in sorting waste end up a good result in recycling for a better future and as an investment for the future of their children. I do suggest that other mayors not fear to introduce revolution in the scheme and demand for changing its habits regarding waste collection. Citizens are ready. New generations fully understand how important it is to preserve the environment.


TOS: So that’s it for our round-up of the Ecomondo 2015 highlights, and for our episode today. I hope you enjoyed the show! For a longer briefing from Economdo, head over to our Events page where you will find resources, pictures and video briefings from the key figures we spoke to.




Waste Less Recycle More: How New South Wales Is Transforming the Organics Recycling Landscape



This week we’re in New South Wales, Australia, to learn about the Waste Less Recycle More initiative and the Organics Infrastructure Fund that will see 70 million AUD invested into organics management in the region. We speak with the Director of Waste and Resource Recovery at the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Steve Beaman, to learn more about this initiative and their plans to pull more organics out of landfills, and discuss the importance of government support and strong policy for success.

We also speak with Robert Niccol of landscape and agricultural supply company Australian Native Landscapes, to get an insight into the processor’s perspective, the challenges that the industry anticipates with this increase in supply, and to discuss further the EPA’s plans to work with industry in developing new markets with their Organics Market Development grants.



The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is the primary environmental regulator for New South Wales. Our purpose is to improve environmental performance and waste management for NSW.

The EPA’s Waste Less, Recycle More is a five year, $465.7 million initiative that’s transforming waste management in NSW. It includes funding for organics collections, processing infrastructure and market development, business recycling, drop off centres for problem wastes and programs to tackle litter and illegal dumping.




Photo by Pavel. Some Rights Reserved.




THE ORGANIC STREAM: We often talk on the organic stream about the importance of policy and government support for making a real impact with our sustainability programs, and the NSW government provides a great example of this – with a strong policy direction stemming from the objectives set out in their waste legislation, the EPA and the NSW government have initiated a host of strategies and programs to reduce waste and keep materials circulating within the economy.

In particular, a 5-year initiative that invests just over 465 million Australian dollars into increasing recycling and keeping materials out of landfill – an unprecedented amount of funding that’s pulled directly from the region’s waste levy. The Waste Less Recycle More initiative has a heavy focus on organics recycling in particular with the Organics Infrastructure Fund. To learn more about this program and the importance of a comprehensive and cohesive policy for success, we gave a call to Steve Beaman, Director of Waste and Resource Recovery at the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

And with a goal of diverting organics from landscape, this will of course mean an increase in organics supply at organic recycling facilities around the region. How will this impact the industry? Well after speaking with Steve we reached out to Robert Niccol of Australian Native Landscapes, or ANL, to get an insight into the processor’s perspective and discuss further the EPA’s plans to work with industry to develop new markets.

Pretty exciting episode – so let’s jump right in with Steve Beaman of the EPA…




TOS: So Steve, a lot is happening in New South Wales at the moment – can you fill us in?


STEVE BEAMAN: The New South Wales EPA and government has set ambitious waste targets, both in terms of waste avoidance and in greater recycling and recovery of material if we do generate it as waste. At the end of 2014, we just released a seven year strategy, the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery strategy, and that has six key focus areas. It’s about having programs in place to reduce the amount of waste being generated in the first place; it’s to increase recycling at a household, commercial and construction level; it’s about increasing the diversion of waste away from landfill; it’s about establishing community recycling centres across New South Wales to make it easy for the community to get rid of problem wastes and to do so in a safe manner; and finally it’s to reduce illegal dumping and prevent littering.

So there’s a very progressive agenda at the moment in New South Wales. And we’ve been able to have that funded from a waste levy. So, for every tonne of waste that’s disposed of in the populated areas, there’s a government levy that’s imposed on that waste disposal, and the purpose of that levy is to make recycling more cost effective against traditional landfill. And as part of that income stream, the government’s allocated over 465.7 million dollars for us to drive this change. And the change is really around three aspects, which are: greater education and community engagement, delivering new and improved infrastructure, and the last is about having a strong regulatory framework that underpins it, so there’s clarity right across the sector and the community of what the government’s expectations are around the rules about managing waste and recycled products.


TOS: Excellent – and there is a great emphasis on organic waste, I know – you’re directing 70 million dollars of that to an organics program.  So what is the key focus for you in terms of organics recycling at the moment?


SB: It’s really around those seven aspects. We’ve just run a series of grant rounds where we’ve got forty three million dollars available of that seventy million for new infrastructure. These are organic processing facilities that are typically a combination of food and garden organics processing and is usually around some form of composting technology. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place, so we’re pulling this stuff out of the bins but we needed the processing capacity to be built, and all that’s being built at the moment.

Our local authorities, our councils that provide the services to the community needed access to new and improved collection systems – and typically that has been mobile garbage bins. So, we’ve funded four hundred and forty three thousand new garbage bins and kitchen caddies, so people can sort out their waste in the kitchen and put it into the right garbage bin.

And this is an exciting one that we’ve just released, but we’ve got four million dollars around market development. And this is around the concept that now that we’ve pulled this organic material out of the system and it’s being processed in these facilities, we have to ensure that we’ve got sustainable and resilient end-markets for this material to be used. If the material gets composted it can go to urban restoration; it can got o mine-site rehabilitation; it can go back to farmland and pasture organic improvements. The thing about Australian soils is that they’re very low in organics typically, and then farming practices over the last two hundred years has depleted those organics even further.

So there’s great multiple benefits here with us taking this stuff out of landfill, processing it and putting it back on the land, improve the water-holding capacity of the land, and also improve the nutrient uptake in some of those soils that are organic poor. So we see this as a great opportunity.

We’re also, from that market development work, looking at how we can assist industry to improve the quality of the compost. Because it’s coming from the domestic waste stream, typically, it’s important to educate communities that they can’t put their used batteries into the organics bin, because it has a consequence: if that battery breaks open, you spread lead through the compost material and renders it useless for use on urban development or agricultural use.

So it’s a multi-faceted program. That’s the thing that’s really exciting about this, it’s trying to attack the issue on a couple of fronts: education and community engagement, industry development, the infrastructure component, and then having the regulations behind it that gives the community the confidence that using recycled products is the way to go.


TOS: Very good – and I’d like to talk about the importance of this strong policy framework that underpins everything and how that has contributed to the program’s success?


SB: I think the thing about Waste Less Recycle More is that success is really going to be attributable to having a really strong policy, certainty and clarity around it, and that’s why I started with the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery strategy. The government has set this long-term strategy, it’s adopted the targets to increase recycling, reduce illegal dumping and to prevent littering, and that really gives us the instruction that we need to go and deliver these. These are government priorities, and those priorities really stem from community expectations – the community wants to see these services being offered and want to see these improvements.

But the fact that we’ve actually been able to align a very strong policy commitment directly from government, and have that underpinned by a very strong funding program, really gives us the recipe we need to be able to deliver this program. And I think it changes the confidence in the community. They can see and engage with the EPA and government on waste and recycling now, and we’re able to provide that information out to the community – we have an excellent website called Love Food Hate Waste, which is around waste avoidance.

But this also has changed the approach by the waste sector, where it’s moving away from the traditional waste collection and waste disposal and towards trying to be a part of this new circular economy and a recycling and resource recovery agenda. So we see this as a great opportunity to change the agenda in New South Wales.


TOS: That’s very exciting. And let’s talk more about the market development side of things for a moment. Developing compost markets is quite a big task – can you tell me a little more about your plans here, and are you anticipating any challenges?


SB: with the markets for compost, I think we’re really pulling a lot of material out of the system, and we need to be careful. That’s why we’re investing in a market development program, so we get that balance right and we don’t disturb the system too much by pushing too much material through the system, thereby increasing the supply and affecting prices. So we need to think carefully and we’re working in partnership with industry around exploring how we can help industry and local government to stimulate the markets so that we’re actually resilient for the longer term, and when more material comes through we’ve actually generated the demand at the end-use level. And that the farmers and the urban restoration workers and so on are more comfortable in using the organics in their soils and agricultural systems, so we can get that market to mature as fast as we can and it then becomes a self-sustaining system.


TOS: It’s great that there is so much investment going into it. But moving out again – are there any pressing challenges you’re facing at the moment in terms of organics recycling – or any problem areas you’re focusing on?


SB: The single main challenge for us is contamination. This is around trying to educate the community and industry. And this is why it’s a very interesting program, because people have things in their household that they mightn’t know how to get rid of. Oil, paint, gas bottles, batteries, smoke detectors, light bulbs… And so if we find that they’re unsure, they’ll often inadvertently do the wrong thing and put it into the wrong bin.

And this is why part of another program of Waste Less Recycle More is the community recycling centres. So there’s another seventy million dollars to build these drop-off centres, and the aim is to have eighty-six of these centres where you can drop off all those problem items you’ve got in the household for free. So if we can make it easy for the community to easily dispose of these problem materials, and also educate them on why it’s important that they don’t drop these materials into their organics bins, then that’s going to keep improving the product quality of our organics and compost.

It’s a real issue for us, and we’re starting to do some exciting work on rolling out a state-wide education campaign to help improve the knowledge and behaviour of householders. And that’s what we’re starting to work on next.


TOS: And all this comes from the funding from the waste levy. Do you consider this waste levy to be the most important, or crucial part of the program’s success?


SB: I’d describe the Waste and Resource Recovery framework as an ecosystem – I don’t think there’s one part that dominates over the others. I think it’s getting all the parts to work in concert with each other. So it’s about having a very strong direction from government to do the right thing. The government has said that we want to achieve these very ambitious targets, and that sends a very strong message. It’s about having a financial and economic tool with the waste levy and that we’ve set a price signal for our landfills and we don’t want landfills to be the predominant processing option – we want people to think a bit more broadly. It’s about having education as well, and that sort of engagement with industry and community so that people are aware and we know how to influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

None of this works if you don’t have infrastructure, and all this falls apart if you don’t have a regulatory regime that sets very clear standards and has offence provisions that say that if you don’t meet these standards, there will be very serious consequences. And I think, from my end, it’s not just the levy that’s important – although it is a very important aspect – but it’s getting all aspects to work well together that is important. And if we get it all operating together in a very clear and consistent manner, I think that’s when we’re going to get the best outcome.


TOS: It will be very exciting to see how it all works, and I’m sure you’re very busy focusing on this now – but as a final question now – I’d love to know – what’s next for the EPA in New South Wales?


SB: There are two things that are exciting for us. Looking forward to future population growth, and hopefully less waste generation, and looking at where we should have the next generation of infrastructure. Where should it be installed? Are there areas around the state where we’re short on infrastructure, and how can we stimulate that investment from the local community or industry? So it’s about making sure we’ve got infrastructure in the right locations.

And the second really exciting thing we’re working on – and we’ve just released it for consultation – is a new state-wide education strategy called Changing Behaviour Together. And this is really around building a platform for a conversation with the community at all levels – with local government, industry and residents – and finding out what their needs are in relation to their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours around waste and recycling, and how can we help standardise that and run state-wide programs to focus on that behaviour change that really underpins our investment in infrastructure.


TOS: Okay, so there’s a real focus on education and outreach there…


SB: Yes, absolutely. I think you can have very complex systems of multiple bins and recycling plants, but it takes an engaged community to make these systems work to their optimum. If people aren’t using these systems correctly, and they don’t understand why it’s important to separate properly, these systems do tend to struggle. And that’s where you get this issue of contamination really raising it’s head. So, I think you really get good bang for your buck from your investment in infrastructure if you have it underpinned by a strong education program.


TOS: Great stuff. And we’ll be following the progress very closely – and best of with the program in the next few years!




THE ORGANIC STREAM: And that was Steve Beaman of the EPA giving us an insight into the NWS’s organic recycling plans. Steve mentioned the need to be very careful in increasing supply of organics to not upset the market (blah?) – and this is indeed something that requires attention. What are the challenges that industry anticipates with this increase, and how big of a task will it be to develop new markets for organic products, compost in particular?

Another key challenge might be contamination rate – with plans to increase kerbside collection, are processors preparing for an increase in contamination as well?

We put these questions to Robert Niccol of ANL and this is what he told us…


TOS: Hi Rob, thanks for coming on the show. Just before we begin, can you give us a short introduction to Australian Natural Landscape?


ROBERT NICCOL: We began life as a landscape construction company about forty five years ago, and that grew into looking for materials to use in landscape supplies. Pat Soars who owns the company started going over the mountains and getting truckloads of bark, and coming back into Sydney and selling as mulch and what have you. We then got into composting, greenwaste, biosolids and all the urban waste streams that are around nowadays.

We currently compost or process about five hundred thousand tonnes of sorted organic streams at the moment. We’re a very strong landscape and agricultural compost supplies company. You name it, we’re into it – we’ve a very strong consumer market of packaged products, supply chain, bulk material supply and landscape construction – that sort of thing.


TOS: Right, and so as a processor on the ground, the government’s plans will have an impact on your business and indeed the industry as a whole. What will this impact be, and are there any concerns in the industry about this increase in supply of organics?


RN: The government, to their credit, is spending a quite extraordinary amount of money in industry support and in terms of processing and market development in a whole rage of areas. It’s the best part of half a billion dollars. It’s a huge amount of money, and we will never see the like of that again.

I think there are some concerns about whether or not we can grow the markets sustainably to consume all the additional tonnages. So I think that is a big ask. The government is certainly supporting market development of about seventy thousand tonnes of additional uptake, but the increase of supply will be greater than that, so there’s potentially an issue there.

Whether or not that becomes a problem will really hinge on how effectively the market development money is implemented and spent; what sort of strategies come out; how those markets are developed; and can we get structural change in the bigger markets, like the agricultural sector, which is really where we see the main growth potential being in terms of demand. So, is it going to be a struggle? Yes. I think there are a lot of opportunities for lots of businesses, but the additional tonnes…yeah, it will be a struggle.


TOS: What are some of the main challenges, or concerns, you have about market development – what barriers to you face at the moment as an industry that will need to be addressed in order for this to work?


RN: Where there’s an issue and a debate that needs to be had – and it has been had some extent – is that you do have different business models, and I’m sure that’s the same all over the world. In our case, we’re one of a number of private companies that started as a horticultural supplies company, and that business has grown and eventually got into what would be considered as the resource recovery and waste sector. But at heart, we are a horticultural supplies company, selling horticultural products.

Then you’ve got the other business model, which tends to be the larger corporatized kinds – those sorts of businesses who are in the waste sector. You know, the real waste driven companies. They don’t come into the market with a horticultural supplies philosophy – they come in with a waste management philosophy, and the two are quite different. Their business model is very much about getting cost recovery at the gate as soon as the material comes in, and then the products of their processing go into the marketplace at a very low dollar value. Whereas those of us in the horticultural supplies tend to have a lower gate fee because we’re expecting to have a value recognised in the output at the end. And they are different models, and there are obvious difficulties with that in the marketplace when you have those two models producing an output that’s competing differently with a different economic structure. That’s a problem.

I think that is something our industry has struggled with and the government has struggled with, and I don’t know that there is a good answer to that. But the difficulty is that when you’re looking to grow markets, like the agricultural sector – and we’re particularly looking at cropping and grazing – where there are more marginal growing sectors anyway, they have some very good years, but they have some very lean years in between. So they’re a relatively low return sector anyway. So you’re going into the hardest part of a market to actually get money out of them, in terms of value for your product.

And the products in those sort of applications are effective, but they’re still competing with fertilisers and bedded down systems. So part of what we need to do is engage in those systems, and get product uptake in those systems. They are inherently a conservative sector, so you need to get those people who have been growing often multigenerationally in a particular fashion. You need to engage with them and give them some comfort that what we have to offer is of value, and it’s sustainable and will work for them with their current cost models.

So we’re looking to actually see, out of the market engagement, the real value of what we have to offer recognised, and to try and penetrate those markets and show the effectiveness of the product. We have to do it at a competitive price, obviously, but unless you break that nexus, that market will never exist. If we don’t get past this first hurdle, where they’re used to using synthetic fertilisers, then it will never change.


TOS: Yes and here you mention education and outreach – which are key components to developing markets in New South Wales?


RN: I think when you look at the current supplies into those sectors, you have larger, agricultural chemical supplies companies who have been supplying into that sector for many, many years; their data is very good and they have a history of use with those products working well. They’ve engaged well, they have a lot of money behind them, and they’ve been able to set up their supply into that sector, well supported with good data, good technology and good advice.

Whereas we’re stepping into that without the dollars behind a Monsanto type of company. We don’t have those sort of resources and we’re stepping into a conservative area, so the education and engagement, and the extension of the good information and data that we have at the moment…we haven’t been very effective in getting that out. So there will be a lot of people who I think we will get to change – and are probably quite keen to change – but we haven’t yet spoken to them. We haven’t engaged with them and we haven’t explained the case well. So, the education side is very important.


TOS: And going back to the increase supply and perhaps another challenge you’re facing: the EPA is focusing a lot of their efforts on educating people about putting materials in the right bins and so on – really getting people to understand the importance of recycling in an effort to keep contamination low. With kerbside collection expanding in the next few years, are you concerned about contamination? What has been your experience so far?


RN: We’ve had quite a number of different contracts over the last twent y five years. Often the contamination is an issue given that most of these streams come out of local government. So they’re within a local area, and that local government facility or waste system is the driver for the recovery of whatever the new stream is – when they decide to introduce a green bin and kerbside collection for green and food waste, or whatever it is. If that council or local government authority has an environmental philosophy from top to bottom, where everything that flows from the top down is about closing the loop and understanding that the outputs of these materials will be coming back to our environment, then they see the issue is about contamination and how it affects the value or quality of the product. And they set up really strong and clear systems that are linked to their council philosophy.

When they start, the new services come in and that’s when you have early issues when it’s new to people and they don’t necessarily know what’s going on. If you have a council that sets up a contract, it’s well aware of that and as soon as those issues arise, they’re proactive – they don’t want the contamination and engage with local residents – and generally speaking, those issues evaporate because they’re driven from the council and local community. And someone has a contract to collect it, and the collecting contractor is a really important part of that as well because they’re the ones picking up the bins – it’ll end up coming to us and as a processor, it’s critical to us that we don’t have contamination. But if you have everyone in that loop with the same general philosophy, contamination isn’t an issue, because if you as a resident don’t care and you keep on putting garbage in your bin, they take away the service.

If on the other hand, and we’ve certainly had contracts where that’s not a driver within the government, then it’s very difficult to manage – because as the end contractor, you don’t have the power in the process to stop that contamination coming in, and that becomes very difficult. So it’s very much down to education and I know the state government is engaging very strongly with local government, and that’s absolutely where it needs to be – because they’re the drivers of the contracts; they’re the people who sign the contracts up with people like us, so if they’re not supportive of it and don’t have structures at the end of the day to remove a service if it comes to that, then we’re stuck with whatever comes in the truck.


TOS: And the government’s cooperation with industry is another important aspect. So, building up relationships and strong communication channels between them is crucial for success, I imagine?


RN: That’s absolutely critical. We’ve run a couple of different grants within our business, and I think personally that the process that we’ve gone through has just been exceptional. They’ve had people within government that understand our sector that we can go and talk to. So if you’re that person, I can go to you and say, “Eleen, this is the grant we’re thinking of putting” and I get very clear guidance, such as, “Yes that’s good, but I’d think about doing that, that and that”, or, “No, it doesn’t fit within the guidelines”. So very quickly you get an answer as to whether the idea you have fits with what they want. If it does, there is an opportunity to get economic consultants in to evaluate the business case and give you advice on whether or not they think economics of what you put forward is logical. After we’ve won our grant, they then have consultants – I think we have about twenty hours of free consultancy after the grant is approved to get through the approvals process and to get thought issues you have in in actually getting your facility built, or whatever it is, once the grant is up. And there’s support after the grant.

I think, really, as a private business, you can’t ask for more than that. It’s been very, very good. It’s a lot of money that they’re spending and it’s a pretty big achievement to get that sort of money out of treasury for our sector, so I think they’ve done a pretty amazing job, really, for the complexity of the programs they’re looking for.


TOS: So it’s an exciting time now in New South Wales, it’ll be very interesting to see how it all goes…


RN: Oh, definitely. It’s certainly going to be a lot of activity and it will be interesting to see where we are in our sector over the next couple of years, because an extra hundred and sixty thousand tonnes of material is what they’re proposing to generate, and that’s a lot on top of what we’re currently doing.


Winning the Gold Medal: A Recycling Vision for the Olympic Games



Where people gather, there will be waste. An event the size of the Olympic Games generates about four-hundred kilograms of waste per minute – and half of that is organic. This week, we travel to Rio De Janeiro and speak with the Head of Cleaning and Waste at the 2016 Olympic Games about their sustainability plans, and take a retrospective look at London 2012 – the very first Olympics to include a Zero Waste to landfill program – in order to ask:  just what does a sustainable, zero waste Olympics look like? And is it even possible? What are the lessons learned from London 2012, and what challenges do Rio face as they prepare for hosting the games next year?

Interview guests: Edison Sanromã, Head of Cleaning & Waste, Rio 2016 and Shaun McCarthy (OBE), Former Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012.

In part two of the show, we bring you highlights from the recent Save Our Soils event in Malmö, Sweden, that gathered international experts in soil science to share with us their knowledge and discuss today’s challenges to soil health. You can find video briefings and material from this event on our Events Page.


BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Wherever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution. For more, visit their website.



London 2012 Learning Legacy website.

Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 website.

Rio 2016 Sustainability website.



Save Our Soils. May 20th, 2015. Malmö, Sweden. Organised by Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative (SIANI).

As world population grows and food production demand rises, it is of increasing importance to keep soils healthy, productive and capable of sequestering carbon. So how do we protect global soils from eroding? How do we keep them healthy? This seminar seeks to address these and other soil related questions by creating a space for discussion between scientists and practitioners, who battle with soil degradation every day.




Photo by Alexander Kachkaev. Some rights reserved.

Transcript coming soon.


Organics Recycling in France: How New Compost Standards & Incoming Laws will Change the Landscape

TOS31_Feature Image_Compost_France

This episode corresponds to Lesson 5 of our online course.


On today’s episode, we’re taking a look at the new compost label and quality assurance system designed by the French national network for the collection and recycling of biowaste, Compost Plus. We’re joined by Thomas Colin of Compost Plus who gives us a detailed look at the new system and what it will mean for organics recycling in France. We examine how strict the standards are and how they will be enforced, the reasons for creating them and the issues with the pre-existing standards, how the new system will benefit the French compost industry and the agricultural sector, and the challenges they faced in creating these standards.

We also get an update from Thomas on source separation in France, the new guidance manual developed by Compost Plus and what it will do, and about the new Energy Transition Law – which is currently being reviewed in the Senate and, if passed, will greatly impact the landscape for sustainable organics collection in France.



ecovio® is a high-quality and versatile bioplastic of BASF. It is certified compostable and contains biobased contentThe main areas of use are plastic films such as organic waste bags, dual-use bags or agricultural films. Furthermore, compostable packaging solutions such as paper-coating and injection molding products can be produced with ecovio®. To find more information, visit their website.



Save The Planet 2015 Waste Management & Recycling Exhibition. March 11-13, 2015. Sofia, Bulgaria. Organiser: Via Expo.

Responding to the growing demand of eco-technologies and an interest in wider implementation of advanced know-how In South-East Europe, ‘Save the Planet’ is a timely event. It will help business and municipalities to increase their investment activities in resource efficiency, landfill rehabilitation, construction of new modern facilities and infrastructure.




Transcript coming soon.




Compost Plus and the French Situation


Q: Can you tell me about Compost Plus and what you are up to in France at the moment?

Thomas Colin: Compost Plus is a network of local authorities all involved in composting and separate collection of biowaste in France. There were six members at the beginning in 2009, and now we are sixteen members, which represent around 1.3 million inhabitants. It is important to notice that Compost Plus is a fully independent association and there is no money from private companies.

All our resources are from members’ fees and the goal of the association is to promote the collection and develop separate collection of biowaste in France. We use different methods, like communication. We communicate on separate collection of biowaste in many conferences and meetings all over France, and we organise every two years specific working days on that field, inviting councillors and technical agents.  We also do a little bit of lobbying; we’re involved in different regulation working groups, and we’re also members of the European Compost Network – which is a lobbying group of European experts with who we share the same vision about the way to recycle biowaste.

And finally we have a few projects – two of them are finished this year. First is a quality assurance system for composting plants, and compost from biodegradable waste. The second one is a guidebook on separate collection of biowaste, giving the reasons why it should be developed and aiming to spread the best practices. There is one project still in progress; it’s an observatory of local policy, aiming to evaluate the economic and environmental impacts of separate collection of biowaste.

Q: Just to clarify – you work solely with municipalities that source separate their organics?

TC: Yes that’s correct, they are all involved in separated collection of biowaste – all involved in source separation.

Q: Can you give me an overview of the situation in France regarding source separation, and composting standards, before your system came in?

TC: In France the separate collection of biowaste is really unpopular at the moment. There is only maybe three to five percent of the population involved in this type of collection. So it was essential for us to write this guidebook in order to demonstrate the feasibility of this industry.

And in terms of the compost context in France: the French quality standards were not sufficient enough for the agriculture industry. They were asking for stronger external control, more traceability, and clearer specification. For instance, there was no clear difference on packaging requirements biowaste compost and municipal solid waste compost, so this was a fear for operators that the user would be mistaken and would lose confidence in the industry, and finally would prefer not to use compost anymore on their farms. So that’s why Compost Plus found it necessary to build this new quality assurance system. It’s called ASQA – the translation in English would be Soil Improvers Selected and Quality Certified.


Introducing the New Compost Quality Assurance System


QWhen did the work on the quality assurance system start?

TC: The work started two years ago. It was a big collaborative work. All the stakeholders were involved in the project: Compost Plus with its members, but also the ADEME (the National Agency of Energy and Environment) from which we received some funding as well. The Agricultural Chamber of France, which represents all the local agricultural chambers, was also involved. The FNAD, which is the federation representing private companies. A few other associations, like the European Compost Network, and the Composting Farmers of France, and the certification bodies were also involved.

I would like to say that the support of the Agricultural Chamber of France was really important – they brought us a technical as well as political support. Actually two press releases have been co-written and published together, one of them during the last Paris International Agriculture Show. This collaboration was really strategic for the wide acceptance of the project by users, because four years ago the Ministry of Ecology led a similar project of the National Composting Charter, including altogether the urban compost, biowaste, green waste, municipal solid waste compost, but the project eventually collapsed because they didn’t get the confidence of the agricultural industry.

Q: Did the collapse of the previous project make it more difficult for you then to set up this new system and label?

TC: Yes, well, what was difficult was gathering all the stakeholders around the table – the private companies, the agricultural industry, the local authorities, and technical experts as well.

Q: So there are quite a lot of players involved…

TC: That was a lot of players, yes. That was one of the challenges – to get everybody around the table, and finally, to make sure the final document was fully approved.

Q: And that process took two years.

TC: It was two years of work, yes.

QThe quality assurance system has just launched last year in September, so it’s still very new. And we touched on this already, but can you tell me the reasons for making this new label?

TC: There were a few reasons for making this new label. For users, the priority was to give them more traceability, more control, more warranties, and better quality. For operators, the label allows them to secure their outlet, and makes the market more lasting for the future. As I said, it was also a clear way to mark the difference between biowaste compost and other urban compost like municipal solid waste compost.

Let me say one more thing. In relation to the French context, there was a lack of quality assurance systems in France, actually. Most of the plants use ISO Standards, which focus particularly on management, but nothing on the product quality. So the project was to create this integrated system based on both management and product standards.


Compost Label Criteria: Just How Strict Is It?


Q: How strict is this new system, and the compost label – what criteria did you put in place and what does it cover?

TC: First, the label is open to any plant, public or private, even if it was a public initiative at the beginning, that composts biodegradable waste separately collected. Meaning that municipal solid waste or sewage sludge is not allowed and can’t be part of any product from this label. Compared to what was done before, the label is a lot stricter: there are thirty-six requirements for quality management, environmental management, and product quality.

A big part of the label is inspired by ISO Standards, which means that the quality policy and the procedures are written, the internal communication done, and information is given to operators on the plant. And there are also internal controls done every year to make sure the plant is still in line with the label requirements.

About the product, there is also a threshold for pollutants, in line with the European Eco label for soil improvers, which are stricter than the French national standards, especially on heavy metals content and impurities.

Q: In terms of the operational aspects – what steps will be taken to ensure operational quality in the compost plants, and so on?

TC: Everything has to be recorded: all the composting operations during the process and the composting parameters such as temperature and moisture. Everything has to be recorded and independent certification bodies can ensure that the requirements are respected. At least one external control is done per year, and each product is sampled for external laboratory analysis. There is also internal analysis required, and there is a particular attention given to pollutants that are likely to pass the allowed thresholds. For instance, when a threshold once, the implicated parameters are analysed on all the following batches for one full year. Aside from the agronomic criteria, the organic matter and nitrogen content are analysed on every batch.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the traceability.

TC: One goal of the label was to bring more traceability, as I said. So, the work on the platform starts by creating input batches. Each batch is followed during the full process from the first stage to the final product, and at every stage of the process, the operators have to know the exact composition of every batch. That means that each kilo of input or output is recorded.


Dealing with Costs and Expectations


Q: Were there any stumbling blocks or issues you had in relation to designing the quality control aspects of the system?

TC: Well, the main challenge was to create a label complying with farmer’s expectations and operator’s limit in the field. So we had to deal as well with the existing rules and practices that sometimes can be hard to change, even just a little bit. So we tried not to revolutionise everything, and to retain most of the best practices already implemented on the field.

One challenge, as well, was to contain the implementation costs of the label. That is why operators have to do part of the control – I spoke about internal control already. So they are doing that internal control and sampling the product. And as the label has some similar requirements to the ISO Standards, we made it fully compatible with them. Thanks to this the implementation costs are reasonable, I would say. Even more for operators already ISO certified, because when the certification body is at the site, it can control parts of the two systems at the same time.

Q: So it ends up not costing the operator as much in that case…

TC: Exactly, so that is why I call this label an integrated label. When you get a contract with a certification body, this label will cost a lot cheaper for operators already ISO certified.

Q: And how has the reaction been so far?

TC: Well for the moment, five plants are doing the work to be certified. Maybe the first certification could open between April or May, but for the moment we haven’t done any communication – we are waiting for that first certification before making any conclusions.

Q: Can you tell me more about who will benefit from this new label, and how?

TC: Those who benefit will be every stakeholder of the industry. Users will benefit from this label because it gives them more traceability, more control and more quality. Operators will benefit because it secures their outlets. Even, I would say, by extension the consumer who is buying food products grown on farms using certified compost, and finally as well it benefits the national authorities by increasing the quality of the national market.


The Question of Biowaste From MBT Plants


Q: We mentioned before the trouble you had to bring all the stakeholders together around the table, but you’ve had a few other issues too, like deciding whether or not to include mechanical biological treatment plants (MBT) plants. Would you care to talk a little more about that?

TC: Well that was one of the questions, whether this label should include the municipal solid waste compost from MBT plants and other sludge sewage compost as well or not. In the end we decided to make this label apart, because Compost Plus members are not familiar with those plants, so it was too complicated for us to imagine creating a label integrating all urban compost. We didn’t want to make a label that confused the user, so it was better for us to separate this initiative.

Q:  Was there any pushback on this decision, or did you have any trouble defending it? 

TC: No, actually they understood this position and today they are working on their own certification label as well on their side. So we’re happy because our initiative gave them the same idea and hopefully with their label they will try to increase the quality of their compost.

Q:  Of course our stance is that source-separation is the best way to go for organics recycling, but are MBT plants popular, or gaining popularity, at the moment in France?

TC: I will say that for the moment the local authorities are waiting for a signal from the national authorities. There are no clear national strategies on how to recycle biowaste. Some local authorities chose to do separate collection of biowaste, others chose to do MBT – but there are few of them, and for the moment most of the local authorities haven’t done anything yet.


Source Separation of Organics & The Energy Transition Law


Q: This is a good transition to talk about what’s happening in France more generally now with organics recycling and source separation. It’s an exciting time at the moment in France – can you tell us more about why?

TC: Well there is a big regulation project called the Energetic Transition Law. In this initial project – supported by the new Minister of Ecology – there is one goal, which is to generalise source separation of biowaste by 2025. So this will be the strong signal I was talking about for local authorities to favour separate collection of biowaste all over the country.

It will also be a really important measure when you think about the international context of climate change and also in contemplation of the next 21COP held in Paris in November (a summit on climate held in Paris at the end of the year), and this measure will be strong contribution from France to reduce our environmental waste impacts. Because we have to know that thirty percent of human methane gas emissions are from landfilling.

So about this Energetic Transition Law – in a few days the Senate will examine the law, and their conclusion should be delivered in the middle of February, so in two weeks, maybe the national situation will totally change.

Q: You’re busy right now talking to the senators and so on about separate collection to spread the word, and this brings me to the source separation guide book (or manual) that you’ve produced (published 5th February). How long has it been in production?

TC: It was also two years work, actually. It’s a book that gathers many, many successful experiences from all around France about source separation of biowaste. There are more than twenty local authorities that have contributed to this guide. And we will officially publish on the 5th of February, so then we will widely spread it to local authorities.

Q: Can you tell me why there is so little source separation in France at the moment, is it just a question of economics or is there much opposition to it?

TC: I wouldn’t say that there is many people against source separation of biowaste in France, but there are still the same people and local authorities defending – and that’s normal – their investment and what they have done. So we can’t say that France is MBT, because some of them are, but some of them are in favour of source separation of biowaste.

Q: Right so there are just a lot of different voices at the moment.

TC: Yeah, it’s a lot of different voices, but most of the people are just waiting for the conclusion.

Q: But municipalities might gain the confidence to start source separation schemes now thanks to this guidance manual?

TC: Yeah that’s true. That is one of the goals of this manual to show the local authorities that source separation of biowaste works everywhere – in urban areas as in rural areas. And yeah, we want to demonstrate that it is working and it’s feasible technically and economically. Because most of the time the argument is that separate collection of biowaste costs more than, for instance, MBT. But this guidebook shows that the twenty local authorities can contribute to this book haven’t got more costs than the national average.

The Future For Compost Plus and France


Q: It will very much depend on what happens with the Energetic Transition Law, but what is the focus for Compost Plus then in the next few years?

TC: Well first of all our next goals will be to make sure the ASQA label is implemented everywhere by local authorities in as many plants as we can. And in relation to the Energetic Transition Law, if the law is in favour of source separation of biowaste, we might have to focus on how we can educate new local authorities in the way of developing source collection of biowaste.

Q: It will be a very busy time, then! And it’s a very busy time for France, too – I’m sure you’re excited for what the future holds.

TC: Yeah, that’s true. The situation can totally change in a few days, and I’m sure this is because of this unclear situation that there is this debate in France. In all other countries in Europe, the national law is clear so there is no debate, and then source separation of biowaste is well developed. As we see in Germany or in Italy, when the national strategy is clear, the local authorities know that they are supported, so it’s easier for them to…to

Q: …to make the change…

TC: To make the change, exactly.


Horticulture Special #1: Compost’s Transformative Effect On Olive Orchard



We’re kicking off the year with a focus on the use of compost in horticulture – how compost use affects soil composition and soil health, and the plants or crops grown in it.

This week, we’re talking to Graham Brookman of The Food Forest organic farm in Gawler, South Australia about how compost has helped transform his poor quality soil and sensitive olive crops and greatly impacted his business for the better. We’ll be discussing how exactly compost works to improve the soil, and the olive crops especially, and we’ll also be exploring the cost factors involved, sourcing compost, the challenges he faced at the beginning, and how long it took to see changes in the soil and crops.



Featured Video:

BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Whereever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution.

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 14.30.06



COMPOST2015: Organics On The Rise – The USCC’s 23rd Annual Conference and Tradeshow. January 20-23, 2015.

The world’s largest organics recycling conference and tradeshow. COMPOST2015 is organised by the US Composting Council, and takes place in Austin city, TX. The event is dedicated to sharing knowledge about everything: from how to run a compost facility to the challenges of collecting green waste and food scraps. Those who attend the sessions and pre-conference classes can earn continuing education credits as well as cutting edge techniques in the industry.

Visit www.compostingcouncil.org/compost2015 for details.




Photo by AracuanoSome right reserved.




The Food Forest – Soil and Olives


Q: Can you tell me a bit about the Food Forest and your olive orchard especially?

Graham Brookman: The Food Forest is a small farm, of about twenty hectares, and of that about seven hectares are irrigated, which is important because we have an annual rainfall of only about forty-four hundred mills (millilitres). We have about one hundred and sixty different varieties of food that we produce, and in addition to the raw foods, we do a lot of value adding; so we would not only produce grapes, but the wine from the grapes, and the vinegar from the wine, and so on. So we tend to have a value-adding stream, which then creates its own by-products, and those by-products go back into the input of the system to keep it going. So we need the least possible non-renewable inputs from the outside.

So, olives are a particularly interesting crop in our environment. They’re very sensitive to the amount of rain that you get, and if they don’t get enough water they will sulk and they won’t give you a crop. And if they get adequate water, then they’ll feel really good and generous and give you good crop. So, we’re sitting on the knife-edge with a crop like olives, and the management of water in the soil is completely critical. So it’s a very interesting crop to watch when you’re thinking about how good your soil is, and how you can maximise your yield, given a particular rainfall.

Q: Can you share with us the situation you had with your soil before you started applying compost – I know it was quite poor quality and a bit of a challenge for you.

GB: The soil is naturally quite low in carbon. It’s an alluvial soil, so it’s largely fine clay silt brought down from the hills and down from the Barossa Valley, and that’s dumped into this old riverbed. So the whole of our farm is actually in a riverbed, and if the river gets angry we actually go under. So we’re acutely aware of where our soils have come from, and the upshot of that is that we have naturally around about 0.7 of a percent carbon in our soil, which is very low: a decent agricultural soil in Australia is somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5. So we started right down at the bottom end.

It was a very unforgiving soil that had the capacity to chemically concrete, virtually, in the summertime – so it was like farming on clay bricks. And so our first and major challenge was to unlock the soil from this concreting – and that was mainly done using calcium, so a calcium rich fertiliser. We used gypsum to chase the sodium ions off the colloids so that the soil would become a little bit more crumbly. And from there it’s just been a steady building of carbon that has led to the vast improvement of our soil.


How Compost Became A Solution: Location, Contamination & Organic Certification


Q: When did you decide to use compost, and why?

GB: Well we had been thinking about it for a long time, but we were bullied into going into a competition – the South Australian Premier’s Food Award – and the sponsor of the award was a guy called Peter Wadewitz from Peat Soils. And, you know, that was sort of by-the-by as far as we were concerned; we were just focused on trying to win the award at that stage.

But along the way, and particularly after we’d won the award, we’d got to know Peter very well, and it was only through talking to him that I realised how cheap compost is. It’s much cheaper than chemical fertiliser, and it gives you all of the added micronutrients, and it gives you carbon. So you’d have to be absolutely crazy not to use it in our situation. We are very close to the source – that is the city of Adelaide, which has got a million people producing organic waste, so the hauling distance is short, therefore the price is good. We also had a good contractor who does spreading locally at very competitive rates, and he worked with us to devise a way of throwing the compost into the actual olive rows – right next to the roots of the olive tree, rather than in the inter-row.

So firstly we could get the compost cheaply, and secondly, we could put the compost where it was needed. So altogether it was pretty easy to decide that that was the way to go!

Q: One of the biggest factors in the affordability of compost for farmers is the proximity to a source of compost. I’m sure you agree?

GB: It is. The cost of transport can be an absolute killer. So if you’re within fifty kilometres of one of the actual manufacturing points for compost, then you’re within a competitive range. But once you start going one hundred, two hundred or three hundred kilometres away, it starts to get pretty much undoable. So we’re just very lucky, and it’s my belief that we need to create cyclical systems where the city – which consumes the bulk of the food (and many other non-renewable items) and produces this magnificent waste stream that mostly goes out to sea – that could all be going straight into the farming system, which is just out on the periphery of the city, taking advantage of the waste water and the waste nutrient stream.

Q: A big concern for those using compost is the contamination rate of the compost. Did you do any research into the compost quality, or did you have any concerns about the contamination rate yourself?

GB: Well, we’re organic growers, so it has to be certified organic, and that was taken care of by the organic certification. So we didn’t have to worry much about it.

Q: As organic farmers, you’re able to use the compost made from non-organic materials from the city because of the change in certification, correct?

GB: Yes. There was a particular day at which one of the certifiers said, “Okay, we’re going to take the view that non-certified organic inputs, i.e. once composted and well done, can be regarded as organic”. That was a major breakthrough as far as I was concerned because up until that time we couldn’t use it because it wasn’t certified organic, and that was a mind-shift by the certifiers. So, that was a very important point.

Q: There are different types of compost to chose from and it can be tailored to suit your specific needs as well – so for your soils and for your orchards, what kind of compost were you looking for?

GB: As a farmer what I was looking for in compost was a high nitrogen level, because nitrogen is the element that drives plant growth most, and in most organic fertilisers there’s a dearth of nitrogen. So looking at the different producers, one stood out as having relatively higher nitrogen levels – still not huge, only about between 1.5 and 3 percent in terms of difference – but it makes a hell of a difference to the plants. It’s like you’ve got a rocket under the plant. So I was looking for high nitrogen, and I think that we can mainly thank the resource of animal manure for that. They had access to quite large amounts of animal manure, which went into that particular compost, and that was very important.


Compost Benefits: Water Retention, Increased Yields, Carbon Build-Up


Q: How often do you apply the compost?

GB: Back when we were poor we could only put it on once every two years, and we sort of hit on a rate of about twenty-two cubic metres per hectare – and that’s applied in bands under the trees. And then we got a bit richer and we do it every year now. And that’s much better because we could see in the second year of that cycle that our yields were less, so we need to keep topping it up. The soil is working hard and it needs to be fed, that’s for sure.

Q: What is important to keep in mind when growing olives, and how does the compost affect the olive tree growth, and crops?

GB: As I mentioned, olives are really capable of sulking. So it’s very hard to kill an olive; they will just stay alive under really bad circumstances, but in terms of giving you a decent yield, you really need to look after them if they’re going to look after you. So they do need reasonable amounts of fertiliser, and reasonable amounts of water. And what we didn’t have was any way of storing extra moisture in our soil when it was low carbon. Now we have three times the amount of carbon in our soil, having used compost for twenty-five years. So we have a much higher reservoir of water, which is actually carried within the organic carbon in our soil, and that makes all the difference.

Not only does compost give you ultimately more carbon, it gives you the capacity to hold more nutrients and hold more water in the soil, and for olives that just is enough to make the difference in our environment. We crossed a bridge about fifteen years ago where the olives suddenly decided that they quite liked being here, and instead of miserable little olives and very poor crops, we started to see some really good crops and it just gets better and better.

We haven’t had to use any other fertilisers, really, since we moved to compost. We had to fix up some stuff in the beginning, when we were low in magnesium, calcium and boron. But once we had those essential things fixed up, we have simply used compost every year, and it’s given us all of the nutrients and the carbon. So it has been quite miraculous. I feel a bit slack really, as a farmer, not having the do all of the recipes and looking at different fertilisers every year!

Q: I can imagine! You touch on some of the benefits here that you’ve experienced with compost, and I want to focus on that aspect now to give people a clearer idea of just how big an impact it’s had for you, particularly at the beginning. According to the case study done by Compost For Soils on their website, Even when you were only applying the compost every second year, production started growing steadily and yields had risen by fifty percent within a four year period – which of course has led to an increase in staff.

Soil organic carbon was as low as .7% and you have now got triple the amount of carbon, which then in turn has a huge impact on the water-holding capacity of your soils – with an increase of moisture infiltration and water holding capacity of up to one hundred percent.  So now you’ve got healthy and happy olive trees, thanks in the most part to compost…

GB: Yeah, it’s amazing really…

Q: How exactly has the compost benefitted the olive plants and the yields they produce the way that it has?

GB: One of the main things with compost is that you reduce the stress levels in your plants. So here, if we hit a real heat wave; temperatures can go up to forty-six, forty-seven degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit) and that puts the plants into stress to the point that they start producing some quite nasty chemicals – you know, some off-tastes: a lot of tannic kind of tastes – and the compost works in a number of ways to combat that.

One is actually how it keeps the soil temperature lower. So, putting the compost on fairly thick as we do, it’s not only acting as compost, it’s also acting as mulch. So if you had open, unshaded soil, the temperature might be seventy degrees centigrade or higher; well you wouldn’t want to experience that. Or, you can go under a layer of mulch in the same place, and if it’s a decent layer then you’re down around twenty-five or twenty-eight degrees absolute maximum. So it is absolutely staggering what a difference a bit of mulch makes.

So that’s one effect. And then you’ve got the continued capacity of compost to deliver water to the plants on those hot days. You just get that continual availability of moisture. So I think they’re the two key things that compost will do that conventional fertilisers won’t.

Q: So it’s crucial to supply the plant with a continual supply or water, and the mulch layer is quite critical then for success when it comes to olive growing in hot climates…

GB: Well yes, and as I was saying with the olives; if you don’t keep the water up, then they just won’t give you a yield. It’s as simple as that. We practice what’s called deficit irrigation where you don’t give the crop all of the water it could possible use, you give it a percentage of that. It’s like feeding children too much: if you feed them too much they get too fat and develop various diseases, but if you just keep them a bit leaner and a bit meaner and…but if you starve them they die!

So you’ve got to find that sweet point where you provide them with enough nutrients and water so they give you that yield, and that’s a very particular point. And we all aim for that here because we don’t have unlimited water: every little bit of water is very critical and compost helps us to find that sweet point.

Q: And of course with such limited water, it’s important that your irrigation applications are effective too…

GB: Overall. Of course, if you are irrigating on soil with low carbon, the water will go, ultimately, straight through it. It’s lost to drainage. Whereas if you’ve got a good carbon level in the top meter of soil, you can store bucket loads of extra water, which means that every kilolitre of water that you’re applying is actually being used by the plant instead of losing half of it to drainage, and that’s tremendously important. And then, in terms of utilisation of the water you’ve got in your soil – If you can reduce transpiration and keep your plants together where they haven’t kind of collapsed, then again you’re getting a much more efficient use of the water. So you’re winning in a couple of ways.

Q: That’s right, and I didn’t mention it before, but over that four year period once again, your irrigation applications grew to be twenty-five percent more effective – not only because of the carbon’s capacity to hold water, but because it lowers the temperature of the soil and reduces evaporation as well. But aside from these obvious benefits, what other benefits have you experienced with compost use?

GB: Oh, the soil microflora. If you’ve got a lot of carbonaceous material and just general vegetable material and so forth, you’ll find that you’re developing much healthier microbes. We have a laboratory in South Australia that actually tests the different types of microbes you have in your soil; and so you’ll have bacterial ones and fungal ones, you’ll have pathogenic ones and beneficials…and there isn’t any doubt about compost – it just really fixes a soil up that otherwise has no defence.

For the tree – if there’s a potential bacterial infection or something like that, with the compost you’ll suddenly find that you’ve got all the fungi and so forth that will get stuck into these pathogens and protect your tree. So there’s no question about that. We actually got our soil tested by a doctor Ashley Martin at this laboratory Microbe Labs. And when we first got the results back – you’ve got all of these issues in your soil, like gauges that you would have on the dashboard of your car, and if the speedometer reading, if you like, is right across to the right, it means you’re really good for drought tolerance, and you have another dial which is really good for bacterial-fungal balance, and so on.

And with our soils that have had compost on them for so long, every test that was done by this lab was right across to the right-hand side – fully on. And so it was good to actually see that this trial that was done using the DNA testing of all the microbes in the soil proved exactly what we’d been suspecting all along.


Challenges Faced at the Beginning


Q: Did you face any challenges at the beginning with sourcing or applying the compost?

GB: Well working out how we could band the compost along the actual tree rows. There was a lot of mucking around. We tried shoots sticking out of the side of the machine, and that was quite clumsy because you had shoot that used to crash into trees every now and then, and so forth. And then this guy from Africa – he was a welder – he designed these baffles that went on the back of the spreader. So the spinner would spin the compost out and it would hit these baffles and then bounce into the right place in the row. That was really good. So once we worked that out, it’s been pretty straightforward.

Q: Were there any challenges you faced specifically with the olive crops?

GB: We did have quite erratic yields with quite a lot of the crops, and we found that the individual climate of a year was critical to success, and I think compost has evened it out quite a bit. So the crop just charges along anyway, even if when you started this whole process a year like that would have just written you off and would have destroyed you. It doesn’t do that anymore because everything’s more resilient, and I think that’s really important. It gives you much more confidence as a farmer, that’s for sure.

Q: How long did it take for the compost to start making an impact on your soils and crops?

GB: The soil improvement came with both calcium sulphate, combined with the compost. And the gypsum, if you get rain, it takes about two or three days and you will notice that a paddock that was like rock now is quite soft. The compost was much slower, and so in terms of noticing a perceptible rise in soil carbon viability and workability with machinery, and that sort of stuff, it took two or three years to get anywhere.

But I think once you get to a certain point, you’re going to actually see the benefit in the year of application. So I would say that nowadays, we get all the money back in the first year, and then more money back in the second, third and fourth years from a given application. So your compost is extremely valuable, because you’re paying off the investment in the year that you actually apply it – and then you’re getting more and more benefit from then on as well.


Investing in Compost: Should You Take The Plunge?


Q: Why do you think some farmers are slow to use or invest in compost?

GB: Most of them are too far away, that’s the problem for a lot of them. Farmers are very practical people: if they do the sums and they can see that they will make money in their operation by buying compost rather than something else, mostly they’ll take the plunge. They’re very hyper-aware of economics. They’ll change crops from season to season, and be watching world markets…so there’s usually and economic reason; they’re economic rationalists, that’s for sure.

But the other thing is that you can put on a powerful fertiliser through your drippers in twenty minutes. You can’t do that with compost. So fertigation, particularly, is a very fast way of getting nutrients to plants. So I think not being a purist is half of the problem. So I would see a practice emerging that says “We’re going to base the soil health of our operation on compost, and we are going to continue to use sophisticated manufactured chemicals to maintain the exact control that we want in out greenhouses”, or whatever it might be.

But we could probably still use twice as much compost as we are at the moment.

Q: Do you have any words of advice for other farmers, or olive growers out there that are looking into using compost?

GB: The sooner you start applying compost, the sooner your soil structure will change – that’s the main message. You just jump in and start doing it, and I think you’ll find that you never stop. You know, I know a lot of people who have sort of weaned themselves onto compost; so they’ve applied a bit of compost for a couple of years, but they’ve kept a little bit of chemical fertilising going on at the same time, and then they’ve switched right across to compost. And so if you’re scared you can do that. It’s sort of like organics – you can do half your property and then you can do the rest when you’re convinced that you’re making more money.

So, particularly for farmers that have got a bit of land close to the city, they’ll find that they can increase their crops and maybe increase yield two or three times, become more profitable, and be doing the right thing for the planet. It doesn’t get better than that!



An Approach To Expanding Commercial Composting Operations


This episode corresponds to Lesson 5 and Lesson 6 of our online course.

In this episode we’re in Los Angeles talking to the project manager of the Inland Empire Regional Composting Authority Jeff Ziegenbein about how best to expand your composting facility without compromising quality or risking your business.  We discuss with him the reasons why composters may need to expand, the technological advances that can help with processing and odour control, how to use a phased approach to growth in order to secure financing and to maintain production quality, tips on dealing with regulations, and much more.

Thanks to If You Care for making this episode possible.

If You Care Certified Compostable Bags are made from potato starch from starch potatoes, blended with a fully compostable polymer, and are polyethylene and plasticizer free. Their potatoes are grown for starch only unlike corn which is grown for food. Their potatoes require forty percent less land than corn and no irrigation. For more, visit their website.

Composting_Testing_Technology Compost Facility Compost_Turner_Technology What a composting operation! Machines

Photo by wasteman2009.



New Mandate And What It Means For Composters


Q: In terms of closing the loop, it is often preferable to have a larger number of small-scale composting facilities to ensure that organic materials do not have to travel far from their source in order to be treated. However, today there is still a great need for larger facilities, and composting facilities often face scenarios that require them to scale up their operations. Jeff, you mentioned before we started that there are changes taking place in California that will see more composting facilities needing to expand. Can you elaborate on this and tell us more?

JZ: California is going through a huge change. We’re mandating the organics away from landfills, and it’s a very ambitious goal. CalRecycle, which is our Integrated Waste Management board here in the state, has announced that they have this new paradigm, saying they want to move out of the landfill. They want to disincentivize and do whatever they have to do to pull those organics out of the landfill for higher and better use.

But the way this new assembly bill reads, some of the activities that are currently considered recycling will no longer be considered recycling – specifically Alternative Daily Cover for landfills. We’ve got a whole bunch of green waste and other organics going into landfills that are not being counted as disposal, but rather as recycling because it’s being used as Alternative Daily Cover. Under this new assembly bill, this no longer will count. We’re essentially doubling the amount of recycling in a very, very short period of time. So the impact to the organics world in California is going to be very profound. Most of us in California, and others I talk to in the US, view that what happens in California tends to trickle outward across the country and sometimes far beyond, so everybody’s watching how rolls out very closely.

I say that because when composters are facing different scenarios that may encourage them to change or expand their facilities, this is a big driver. Right now, California composts almost six million tons of organics, so we in the organics industry are expecting that to double to about twelve million tons in about five years. So that’s going to require more facilities, more markets, and infrastructure. I think one of the big things that we all need to be aware of is that it’s going to require diversity, so we’re going to have to be creative. We’re going to have to open our minds up a little and understand that it’s not just one technology, one scenario or one application that’s going to require a lot of different varieties. So, small backyard operations, community operations as well as very large regional facilities are all going to have to be constructed and expanded to satisfy this new mandate.

Q: So one of the major reasons a composting site might need to expand is an increase in feedstocks. But how about regulations? There are very stringent regulations in California that make it difficult for smaller composting sites to get off the ground…

JZ: That’s true. California is a big state, but I one of the things that’s common across the state is the challenge of siting facilities. We have a population and a state that doesn’t usually like facilities to be very close to where their residents are, but the further you move away from where your populations are, the more transportation costs you have. So we always try to build as close as we can to where the materials are generated, but in our state we have a lot of stringent regulations around water, air and nuisance that do require higher technology than I see in other places in the country.

For example, the facility that I’m operating here in Southern California – the Inland Empire Regional Composting Facility – this facility actually cost ninety million dollars to construct. And that is a very large price tag for any composting facility; it may be one of the most expensive ones in the world. But the reason why it’s so much money is because it’s right in Los Angeles. It’s in an urban area, and it’s in an area that is very heavily regulated by an air district, because LA is not in compliance with the clean air act and is also heavily regulated with water and with lots of things.

So in order for us to be compatible to build a facility like this in this type of an area, it required a lot of engineering and a lot of infrastructure. The good news is that we did get it built, we did get it permitted and we’re able to operated it at a very competitive cost, but the only way we’re able to make all that work is by a heck of a lot of volume. In the case of this facility, we’re operating over two hundred thousand tons every single year, and that’s the reason why we can make this work. It’s not always that easy: if you build a small or a medium sized facility with this type of VOC and odour control (VOC’s are volatile organic compounds, which are regulated in this district), and you don’t have a lot of volume to spread those costs over, you can price yourself right out of being a possibility. So we see that challenge over and over again in the state of California, and I’m sure that’s a common problem across the world.

Q: So if regulations are very strict, it may force composters to invest in building covers or in more expensive technologies, which in turn would require them to scale their operations.

JZ: Yes, and the good news that in two major areas in California have air rules that require the removal of VOCs, and when you remove VOCs you also have to remove most of the odours in the air streams that are remitted for composting facilities. So just by surviving in these air districts, we’ve learned a lot as an industry; what does work, and what works on a big scale, so we try to share that information and teach others that these technologies do exist – they’re fairly predictable in how they operate; I’m really talking about biofilters. We do have a pretty good understanding about how these work and we can use them in lots of ways; in ways that are very expensive, but also in some ways that aren’t quite so expensive. So we view that there’s some hope that we can site more facilities in California and be compatible with the air rules and the neighbours.

TECHNOLOGICAL Advances In The Composting Industry


Q: Let’s talk about technologies. A big factor here is that within the last 20 years we have seen an increase in the amount and type of feedstocks being accepted into composting facilities (biosolids, paper sludge, food scraps…). Due to the increased complexity in processing the material and controlling odours, it’s spurred on the need for more sophisticated technology to handle all this. Jeff, what rare the technologies that are worth investing in today to handle odour, and so on?

JZ: For odour control is often a biofilter, and a biofilter is essentially in most cases a wet pile of wood, and the beauty of that is it’s a wet pile of wood and most of us can figure out how to operate those. It’s not that complicated, you don’t have to have a full-time engineer with a bunch of fancy instruments, it really is just a pile of wood, and we have to maintain it for moisture and make sure the air is moving through it appropriately, and size the pieces of wood appropriately and things like that. But biofilters work, and the good news is that we can copy this and teach people how to do this, allowing them to build these things fairly inexpensively.

So for odour control, and for compliance with these air districts, a biofilter is a very good tool, and we’re getting more and more confidence with using them. More recently, there’s been a couple of variations to biofilteration, including some covers where they have permeable tarps that you can put over piles that have a bunch of surface area in the tarp so the water molecules will collect in the surface area and the air passes through and transformed similarly to how it would be in a biofilter. Those seem to work pretty good as well.

The Association of Compost Producers, a non-profit trade organisation that represents most of the composting companies in the state, developed an alternative to all those I’ve just talked about, where a finished compost layer is placed over a compost pile, and then air is blown up through the compost pile. And as the air passes through the finished compost layer, that actually works as a biofilter. So that’s even cheaper yet than securing new wood and having to size it and moisten it and so on. And so that was done in the San Joaquin air district that has very stringent air regulations.

So the Association of Compost Producers representatives and some others put together a pilot project with a grant, and demonstrated and measured the air omissions from these piles using the lowest cost technology, and it actually worked very well and got about ninety eight percent removal. So that may be something that really helps facilities deal with odour removal and VOC control with even a lower cost method. That same technology is being tested in the South Coast air quality district and other districts in California to verify it and see if it can be repeated in another air district. And if it can be, it may be adopted as a best management practice for these districts.

Q: Is there anything else on the market right now that you see as promising or worth investing in?

JZ: The most exciting things that I have seen is some of the technologies in the tarps that can actually process the odours and VOC control. I’ve seen quite a few of these work and I like the simplicity of just throwing a tarp over a compost pile and having these automated systems control the air flow and temperature and so on. So some of these kits for making a compost system are pretty interesting, and as we get more and more experienced, I can see them becoming an easy way for someone to start up a small or medium sized facility. It’s just a tarp and a probe that has an oxygen sensor and a thermocouple, and it goes to a small motherboard that controls the fan. I like the thought of that, I think things like that have a lot of promise.

Q: Your facility is a completely covered facility, is that right?

JZ: Yes, the Inland Empire Regional Composting Facility that I manage is a converted warehouse. It’s actually an old Ikea warehouse that’s almost five hundred thousand square feet, so it’s a very large warehouse that has conveyors and wheel loaders and things like that operating inside of it. So all of the emissions from the compost piles are trapped within that building and then exhausted out through the biofilters. The amount of control of emissions is pretty extraordinary, actually.

Q: Because of this, would you say that covering your facility or using in-vessel composting would be the best way to go when dealing with such stringent regulations or being close to residential buildings?

JZ: I think it depends on where. We’ve looked at possibly working with other people on building additional facilities, and almost every time we halfway serious about it, we end up envisioning a covered, fully enclosed facility, due to the reasons I mentioned before. The only way we really feel comfortable in an urban area on a very large scale was to do the complete enclosure. I think if you’re in a different area and not so close to Los Angeles for example, then that’s when you can get into some of the hybrid technologies that I mentioned before.


 Challenges When Expanding Operations


Q: I’d like to focus on the process of expanding a facility. What are the key issues or challenges to take into account when planning your expansion?

JZ: I think the big challenges, and not in any particular order, would be environmental regulations – and that has some cost impacts – markets, and definitely technology to make sure it’s clean enough to be marketed and processed, and probably transportation.

Those seem to keep coming up over and over again when I talk to folks about expanding or building new facilities. But markets are always a major concern. In some areas less than other areas, of course, but in Southern California which has a tremendously robust composting infrastructure – we’re currently composting over three million tons down here – we need to expand markets.

Q: Market creation seems to come up again and again, and it’s something we talk about quite often. It is complex and it’s difficult for the composter to handle it by themselves of course, but what would you recommend to composters, then, as a strategy for expanding the markets?

JZ: Building markets is a long term process, and it needs to have the mainstream of people realise that it is important not to have naked soil and to just throw water at naked soil. We do that all the time in this state, and I’m sure across the world. So, getting that message across is very, very important. And in California at least, with the Association of Compost Producers, we’re working on service announcements, we’re working with our water distributers, creating model ordinances requiring soil preparation before irrigation permits go down…just educating people that it’s wrong not to treat your soil. You shouldn’t just throw a bunch of water on sand and waste this drinking water.

In order to market, it takes this broad approach. And then on top of that it takes a local approach. You need to work with your customers and tell them why they need more, how to expand their market, what their messages need to be. We work with schools in trying to get the message to the children that you need to put compost down. So it’s all of those things.


Using A Phased Approach


Q: Another big issue for expanding a facility is in securing funding and putting in place a workable strategy that will give confidence to lenders and also yourself when expanding. How would you advise composters to start planning their expansion with these issues in mind?

JZ: Yes, for example, to fund a new composting facility in California and get a bank to come up with a bunch of money so you can build your facility, they need some assurance that it’s actually going to work. So if you just have this vision of this huge facility, a lot of times folks will try to go get put or pay contracts, and build these models and things, but banks sometimes aren’t satisfied with that, and that can make the cost of money pretty prohibitive.

One of the better models is if you can design a facility so you have this expandability to it and you can do a phased approach, then you have a lot better shot of success. You can have, say, a receiving structure that’ll take it in a little or a lot of material, but that’s usually a fairly inexpensive part of your process, and then you can feed these different operational trains for one through four phases. And the facilities I’ve seen use that kind of process – that’s the smartest way to go if you can do it. In other words, if you can get funding for phase one at twenty-five thousand tons and you can make the business case work, then you can prove that out. And by the time you get to phase two your economies of scale are so much better, and it really gives you an opportunity to expand a facility.

But then you’re not starting right at this maximum best case – there’s just a lot more risk for failure when you do it that way. If we’re talking about borrowing, you need to demonstrate in a very professional way what’s working and why your expansion is going to assure that you are going to pay money back. So when you’re doing performa on your business models and having enough comfort level in there and enough conservatism in there that the numbers are real and you can verify them, that’s the key. It’s very tough to design a facility and have it actually work exactly how you estimated it would, so I would be as conservative as you can stand, and then if you have a bit of a track record and your numbers are real, I think you can get the funding that you need. It can be done, I see examples of it all the time, but you do have to put together a real performa, and it has to have some sort of backing to it.

Q: Yes, and in the US at the moment, financing is a very tricky thing to get these days what with state grants and loans having been decreased over the last ten to fifteen years. Is it easier for a composting site that has been running for a while to secure capital in order to expand?

JZ: Well I think it might be easier. I think if you go to a lender and you have this track record, and then this proposed expansion, I think you have a little bit more confidence from the lenders. And there is also some grants currently, with this new paradigm as CalRecycle likes to call it, there is some funding for facility expansion. So there is some money available that folks are competing for to expand their facilities, and that may give lenders a little bit more confidence too. I think there’s a little bit more money than there was, say, five years ago. I don’t think it’s as healthy as it was ten years ago, but it’s certainly better than it was recently.




Q: Let’s move onto regulations. It’s always going to be a long process to go through when figuring out what regulations apply and how to comply with them, and we can see even from our discussion today that they have shaped the composting industry and where we go with it. What advice would you give to composters on this front, and how can we best get on the right side of the regulators?

JZ: : I know this is a regional answer, but again we’re sort of a case study: in California I think it’s very important to be involved with a lot of these changing issues. Specifically the Association of Compost Producers which is this trade organisation, it has a seat at the table. We have a lobbyist sitting in Sacramento, and we are the state chapter for the United States Composting Council, so we are working with Caltrans and CalRecycle and assembly people, and the water board and the air board – all these different variables that are impeding the growth and expansion of the compost marketplace. It’s very important to get involved, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money, but you have to maintain involvement and get to know what’s going on.

For a long time the compost industry has been a fragmented group of companies who saw each of their own projects as an individual island, but because these regulations have become so dynamic and impacting, all these groups have joined together for this common cause to make sure everybody understands that compost is the highest and best use for this material, that we are a real industry with a real group of professionals, that we are involved and are funding staff to make sure we have a seat at the table. I think that’s probably the most important thing folks can do. Just get involved!

I think that raises the bar, raises the standard, it makes common standards, it keeps everything as professional as possible, and that’s really one of the biggest keys to moving forward successfully

Q: So your key advice is for people to just get involved, and then maybe we can influence how regulations are being created to support composting better.

JZ: Absolutely.




Q: In terms of managing the facility during expansion, it can be quite a lot of work to maintain your quality control and odour control as it gets bigger and bigger. What steps can we take to expand without losing quality or risking odour problems?

JZ: Yeah, that’s tricky. It is definitely tricky, and it’s not usually a linear change. If you have some sort of control system and you do a forty percent increase, you can’t just increase your control system forty percent and call it good. It’s more complicated than that. You have to be conservative when you’re expanding a facility for the reasons you just mentioned. The cost is so high; if you have a successful operation and you go to do a forty or fifty percent increase and you kill your whole project – that isn’t anything that you want to have happen. So I think you nailed it; I think it does require a lot of planning and research and control measures to make sure that when you do make these changes you’re not jeopardizing your entire project.

And we’ve seen that happen, it’s very unfortunate. You know, you think “this works, so if I do more it’ll work better”, and sometimes that just is not the case. So you have to build in a lot of safeguards when you start to expand operations.

Q: And what would these safeguards look like?

JZ: Well, there are a lot of professionals – not that you necessarily have to go and hire a full engineering firm – but there are some very competent professionals that can help measure and quantify some of those changes. For example, what’s going into a biofilter? What is the cubic feet per minute and concentration and the effectiveness of your biofilter? And if you want to expand to some X percentage greater, what would your empty bed retention time and biofilter need to be, and therefore your square feet? There are a lot of folks who can really help build in some of these control measures and then give you a safety factor.

That’s really the take on what I’m trying to say. I think you really need to be conservative when you start designing expansions. For example, if you wanted to expand by fifty percent you might phase that in. Start with your odour control device, and then do incremental increases in your throughput – that way you’re not destroying your whole project. So if you doubled your odour control device, but then only increased your throughput by half, then potentially you have this bit of a cushion before you jeopardize your project.

Q: So you need to go slow and steady.

JZ: I think it’s pretty important. Projects do get killed in California; it happens. If the neighbours are against the project, the regulators start to fall out of favour with it, and the local enforcement agencies – it’ll kill a project. There’s a lot at stake; it’s expensive to build these things in California, you do not want to get it shut down.

Q: And this applies to the rest of the world too.

JZ: Of course.

TECHNOLOGY – Simple Is Best


Q: In terms of picking out the right technology for your expansion, there is often a tendency to source the highest functioning technology available, because it’s cutting edge and might be easier to sell when looking for grants, but that’s not necessarily the best option…

JZ: Well I think you’re right, and we’ve seen examples of trying to fully automate composting processes, and  we end up modifying that somehow and doing as much labour or more trying to live with whatever savings we thought we were going to get from this automation.

Personally, I take whatever is the cheapest and the dumbest first and work up from there, and ask why you can’t do this or can’t do that. Really low technology or inexpensive technology with the finished compost biofilters thing that ACP did is very good. It’s not going to work everywhere, but that’s one of the ones you’d look at early on. You know, “can I do this with a windrow? Oh I can’t because f the air rules. Okay, well can I do this compost blanket technology? Oh, I can’t because there’s a retirement community three miles away. Well okay, can I use a cover? Oh, I can’t because of – whatever”.

So you have to start ruling some of these out for whatever reason, and then ultimately maybe you get to where you have a fully enclosed composting facility, because that’s really the only thing that’ll be compatible in the region that you’re looking to build one. So again you need to start simple and cheap, and then work backwards.

Final Words Of Advice


Q: Is there one piece of advice you could give all composters out there who are looking to expand no matter where they’re situated?

JZ: I would certainly recommend looking at other facilities. We have a lot of good examples around the world of facilities that work, and go look at them. It does not cost that much; most facility operators are happy to show off what they’ve got that works. So take a look at it. Find out why it works and but lunch or something, and spend enough time that you can get the real challenges out of them. You know, ask the questions: what are your biggest challenges? Why would you do that again? And those type of things.

Learning from other’s experiences is probably one of the most valuable tools that we as an industry can use. And through associations like the United States Composting Council etc – we have these meetings where all these guys get together and talk about their projects. I think that this is a very important step.

Q: Do you have any final words before we go?

JZ: I’ll just say that as our industry matures, that organisations like the United States Composting Council and others like them around the world, and Association of Compost Producers in California – and Compostory.org – things like this are really important, and I think that the industry needs to stay informed and stay involved, and share what they know, and listen to what others know. And that’s how we mature as an industry and grow.